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Artists at Work: Emily Wardill

Film-maker Emily Wardill discusses her films The Diamond (Descartes’ Daughter) and Sea Oak, in relation to language and communication, with curator Mike Sperlinger  

For her show last year at Fortescue Avenue in London the artist Emily Wardill presented two new films, The Diamond (Descartes’ Daughter) (2008) and Sea Oak (2008). Sea Oak was developed from a series of interviews conducted with the left-leaning think-tank the Rockridge Institute in Berkeley, California; the film consists of imageless black leader with only a soundtrack playing on a film projector, which is spot-lit in the centre of the space in which it is shown. The Diamond (Descartes’ Daughter) takes as its starting point the mythical story of Descartes’s construction of an automaton modelled on his dead daughter, and interweaves this narrative with a re-creation of a half-remembered film scene featuring a diamond protected by lasers.

MIKE SPERLINGER: Why did you want to show those two films together?

EMILY WARDILL: Partly because there is a formal relationship between them. In The Diamond (Descartes’ Daughter) you have the diamond, which is at the centre of a re-created heist, spot-lit in the centre of the room, and in Sea Oak the projector itself is spot-lit in the gallery space.

There was also the way this staging of the scene with the lasers in The Diamond relates to my memory of it, and the desire to trace it back to a particular film, a particular image. That touched on some of the ideas discussed in Sea Oak, about the general and the particular. One of the interviewees, Eric Haas, talks about how for every person the term ‘bird’ suggests a similar imagined being – not being specifically tied to any actual bird (an ostrich, a penguin, etc.). It’s a general bird, which has this mushy, abstract, but cohesive – socially cohesive – function of making something generally recognisable.

MS: How did Sea Oak come about?

EW: I was interested in the research that The Rockridge Institute were doing into ‘framing’ and the use of metaphor within political rhetoric. I had asked them if I could go out to San Francisco and interview their members with the thought that I would put this footage together into a film. This kept on being put off because of money and time, and then finally I got out there in February [2008]. I had a whole series of questions that I wanted to ask them – some of which turned out to be unanswerable, and some of which led on to more questions. Then I realised after I’d shot the footage that the film had to have no image, because if it had an image I would be completely undoing everything that I was talking about…

MS: Because the Rockridge project is about language on its own conjuring up images in the minds of individual listeners?

EW: Yes, exactly. So I edited the sound that I had – because I had eight hours of material from the footage – and gradually put things into sections. Virtually all of it is from the interviews that I recorded, but there were certain points which needed to be made that I had to get from pre-recorded lectures, so about three percent of it is from other sources.

In the interviews, the staff are mainly discussing their research into the idea that if you create within peoples’ minds frames which relate to their own sense of identity, then everything that can lodge within that theatrical frame or stage will stay and everything that can’t will bounce off…

MS: It’s interesting that you’re translating the Rockridge’s idea of ‘framing’ into this idea of a stage, as if it was the proscenium arch under which any concept is possible. That seems to relate back to a lot of your other work.

EW: Yes, but it’s also like a language game, that idea of stages being both stages towards understanding and stages in the theatrical sense – I like how those two ideas relate to each other. I’m also interested in this possibility, or responsibility, of enacting your ideologies, and how that can happen in a way that’s fictitious. When you summon up material reality in your language, why does that always take on this fictitious dimension?

Words, in the theories of the Rockridge Institute, function like a kind of second-order spectacle. Political rhetoric trades on the ambiguity of metaphorical images, images which are doubly ambiguous because they’re being suggested or described rather than supplied visually.

MS: Sea Oak seems to have a kind of transparency or directness that is quite different from The Diamond and some of your other work. And because of when the show was happening [just before the US election], it was almost impossible not to have a different relation to it, to feel that it had a kind of immediacy.

EW: There were a lot of things that were covered in our discussions which I decided to leave out, so that Sea Oak would have an elegance of structure that remained true to the clarity and pedagogical tone of the forms of communication which the Institute members were interested in. They would spend months writing and rewriting papers that were designed to be as clear as possible. This emphasis on delivery – to be cohesive and seductive – was important in the way that I wanted to put Sea Oak together.

There is also the intimacy of interviews as opposed to lectures, which helps in this feeling that you are listening in rather than being spoken to as part of a crowd. It was important for me to show it before the elections, obviously, because much of what is discussed relates both to the Bush Administration and the way that the presidential candidates communicated during the campaign too. At the same time, in contrast to that tendency towards transparency, a lot of the things that the people from Rockridge talked about seemed to be applicable to Structuralist filmmaking, for instance, too…

MS: What are the parallels with Structuralist film?

EW: There’s this idea of there being a materiality to communication which is impossible to ignore and which can be used for political ends, which they both seem to share. For example, Jeanette Iljon’s work was important for me whilst making Sea Oak, specifically The Conjuror’s Assistant [1979], where she takes 100 feet of footage [which would normally last 3 minutes] and then expands it so that it becomes 35 minutes long. She moves around the image and analyses the gestures of the people within the film, but she has a style of analysis which makes you feel that you’re not sure where the meaning is – is it in the way that she’s filmed this, or in the gestures of the people in the film, or in the very gesture of looking at the film again? It’s like what they’re addressing at Rockridge, but she’s talking about it visually, whereas they’re talking about it through cognitive linguistics.

MS: In The Diamond there’s a line about ‘being rational to the point of being irrational’, and I guess what is slightly disturbing about the Rockridge interviews in Sea Oak is that this idea of absolutely calculating these non-rational, affective elements of speech starts to sound really maniacal…

EW: I suppose the people at Rockridge don’t have that suspicion of, say, the spectacle – this inherited suspicion of the spectacle that comes from an awareness of art history but also of fascism. Instead of recognising and dismissing political theatre, they’re suggesting you analyse what is being done – rather than saying, ‘George Bush is stupid’, saying ‘Perhaps he’s actually really smart…’. It’s more radical, in a way, than just constantly nitpicking and deconstructing, or expecting that if you give someone the facts they can respond to them directly without ever testing that.

It’s also really problematic, of course. Do you know this famous Ron Susskind interview, when he was talking to a senior aide to the White House? The aide says to Susskind, ‘You know, your problem on the left is that you’re still in what we call the reality-based community, whereas we on the right can create facts, and while you’re busy analysing everything that we do, we are creating reality.’ Ron Susskind mutters something about Enlightenment principles and reliance on fact… It makes you quite jealous, in a way. It’s obviously despicable and horrible when you think about what this actually entails physically for Afghani people, or Iraqi people, or people from Diego Garcia, or anyone directly affected by this ‘maintenance of fiction’. At the same time, away from its consequences, it sounds like a lot of fun – like this creative thing, this joy of language or creation. It also makes you feel really pissed off – like, how did they get that? When did the right steal all the exuberance and chaos of language – that was our territory!

MS: Were you making The Diamond at around the same time as Sea Oak?

EW: Yes, but The Diamond was slow too, because I did it as a performance to start with, and then I realised that it didn’t work as a performance, that it would have to be a film. I did a lot of searching for that scene [of the diamond theft] and it didn’t exist as I remembered it existing at all. I watched a lot of films with similar scenes, from Entrapment to The Thomas Crown Affair, The Thief, Ocean’s Eleven, The Pink Panther, The Man with the Golden Gun… I asked friends too, everyone knew it, and yet it wasn’t anywhere in exactly that form. But that was interesting, why that scene was so popular – what is it about it that means there are all these variations on it? Of course, in the search for that scene there was also a connection to the scarcity of diamonds, which is a device to maintain their value.

MS: Was this apocryphal story, of Descartes building an automaton substitute for his dead daughter, the starting point for the film?

EW: Yes, I liked that story because of the sadness and the stuntedness of it. But then also how that idea is materialised – when the automaton is staring back at him, what that relationship would be between himself and the materialisation of his own ideas and desires. Obviously it’s absurd, the idea that one might be able to build one’s daughter from clockwork and metal, but also it’s kind of terribly sad at the same time, and as a story it seems to contain a condensation of both a man and the consequence of his ideas.

MS: Thinking about your other films, for example Ben [2007], there’s this real sense of different strands which are never allowed to completely coalesce. In The Diamond there’s the girl playing Wii dressed as if she’s in an Etienne Jules Marey chronophotograph, the search for the diamond heist scene, the story of Descartes’ daughter… To some extent become related towards the end, but there seems to be a real sense of wanting to avoid complete resolution.

EW: It’s really like that with The Diamond, but I think I want to try to not do that with the next film that I make. It makes sense with that film because it formally reflects the way the diamond refracts light, with these shattered images. Or in Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck[2007], you had these edits that looked like the stained glass in the film – the specific compartmentalisation that you would have in stained glass windows where a hand, an eye and a crown would be tethered together in one frame. So it made sense in both those films to have things which were separate, which connected to each other but didn’t turn into each other.

I was reading this really interesting interview with Norman Mailer where he talked about the great American novel and how it had gotten out of control – the idea that you could stand in the middle of the universe and pluck patterns from different places and draw them all together in one great synthesis, from the structure of DNA to chaos theory or the shopping patterns of horny men. Mailer was saying that this idea was brilliant to begin with, but now it was only enjoyable for the person who was in the centre of it, and the reader had become dislocated and felt abandoned. And he was actually strangely calling for a new naturalism, almost for the kitchen sink naturalism of a Zola.

That is something that I’ve been thinking about with the new film that I’m going to make, but also with Sea Oak – how do you limit yourself so that it doesn’t become completely scattered? I think it’s interesting to think about it in terms of equating the idea of postmodernity with the body instead of with the mind, because then the body can be multifunctional and separate, and yet also connected and responsible and human. Whereas the mind can scatter and collect many different things with impunity – you can sit from this position of safety and then draw conclusions which have no consequences.

MS: What is the new film?

EW: It’s called Gamekeepers Without Game, and it’s a melodrama. I wrote a script for a melodrama about a family who had a child, who put the child up for adoption when she’s eight because she’s displaying psychotic tendencies. Later the father decides to bring her back into the family home, but when she comes back into the home she doesn’t understand the objects the house is full of, which are built up as status symbols but then have the status of props and finally of evidence.

I want to shoot it like airline food, so you have this sense that everything is separate and nothing ever touches. At the end when she murders the father, you’re as shocked to see him touching this axe, or this axe touching his head, as you are that he’s died. When the objects get destroyed, you feel like a character’s been destroyed.

MS: This started as a performance too?

EW: Yes, I did this originally as an event at the Serpentine Gallery. I knew that melodrama was really important – the combination of melody and drama – and the soundtrack would be a drumbeat that was like a melody, so the drums provide the rhythm of the actors and the voiceover. I thought it would be useful to work through the script as a live thing with a band and it was good to work with the band Nought too, these math rock musicians.

It’s useful doing performances like that, because you work through your ideas in this way that’s really intimate and social, and you’re forced to embarrass yourself with your ideas before they’re fully formed. I think embarrassment can be quite productive.

– Mike Sperlinger