Channelling and echolocation: An interview with P. Staff

Jenny Chamarette:  Thank you so much for meeting with me, P. It was fantastic to see HEVN premiered at the London Short Film Festival a few weeks ago. And it was great to see you beamed in from LA to talk about your work. This is an extension of that, to have a bit of more in depth, conversation about HEVN and your other work and Dwoskin’s work. My first question is about process and processing. HEVN combines hand painted filmstrip, with digital footage, but in quite an unusual combination. It almost feels as if the digital images are peeking out from underneath analogue chemical processing, like archaeological sediment. And I know that chemical composition and decomposition have been a long-standing interest in your work. I was wondering if you could tell me a bit more about how that made its way into HEVN?

P. Staff: I really love that observation of the archaeological sediment. You’re right in that there’s a slightly unusual process at play in it. Which, in some ways is born of experimentation and other ways is a deliberate attempt to render both the filmic and the digital as being unfamiliar, or being made harder to recognise. And in that sense, that process comes from one of being a filmmaker or video artist and wanting to dig deeper into having a promiscuous relationship to the material fidelity of filmmaking techniques. And to be promiscuous with some of those definitions, I suppose, so doing things like recording an image digitally, transferring it to film, rescanning that film digitally, and then re-editing it again. And letting those two processes — analogue and digital — which we often, out of a kind of dedication to style, are very distinct about, whether something is film or whether it’s digital, and whether the format is this or that. I was deliberately wanting to pervert that, and break some of those rules, that can feel a little bit like pearl-clutching…

JC: Bourgeois attitudes to medium specificity…

PS: Right? That’s what I’m trying to get at. Trying to deliberately fuck with that a bit. But like you say it also creates this situation where these different types of images are struggling against each other, or always threatening to break through. I think that is what I liked about it. One of the things that you probably picked up on is that I painted strips of film with green-screen paint. And so then, digitally, I’m able to green-screen images onto what is roughed-up scanned film. And that was something that was really specific for this work that I wanted to do try and do. The other thing is that, doing this commission as a response to Dwoskin, in some ways I gave myself permission to be more filmic than I usually am. I leaned into making that materiality nakedly apparent, that it was film and scanned film and hand-painted film; more than I maybe would have would allow myself when working completely independently.

JC: It sounds to me like investment in the material, while still wanting to mess with the expectations of the material, to mess with the preserves of material that is digital or analogue.

PS: Yeah. And being aware to a certain degree that, at least in the initial context, that the work would be seen in a specific frame, that it’s bouncing off a pre-existing body of work, which is Dwoskin’s. In that regard, there’s this ping pong, or this sort of sonar beep that goes out to Dwoskin and comes back to this work. And so then, what it’s doing to use these techniques, and to have that filmic quality doing what it’s doing in the work, becomes something else.

JC: I love that description. For a long time, I’ve thought about processes of translation and interpretation and inspiration and what that means, in creative practice. And I love this thought of sonar beeps resonating off the Dwoskin material. In one way, it feels ghostly to me. And in another, very material because you can’t have a sonar beep without a material object to reflect from.

PS: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Echolocation.

JC: Yes, echolocation through and between filmmakers and filmmaking.

PS: Mm hmm.

 

Hevn, P. Staff, 2022

 

JC: Oh, now, I want to talk about bats! But my next question is still about systems of communication actually, about language. It feels to me like you’ve been working with language and the limits of language for quite some time. And Letraset dry transfer lettering is a prominent feature of HEVN, which almost, but not quite resolves itself into what I would describe as a kind of found poem. It also feels as if it was a found poem that is breaking away from itself. And there was a real resonance for me, a connection to something that the singer-songwriter Macy Rodman says in your film, that writing became impossible for her while she was adjusting to her transition to her hormone regime. And that got me wondering if the play with language in HEVN – that feeling of language that comes together and then falls away again, the way that it gets crushed or squashed, sometimes literally, with the Letraset, and then still remains – whether that relates to a transgendering, or a transitioning of writing and text?

PS: Yeah, I love that question. I love this idea. It makes me want to, I don’t know, go away, go up a mountain and think about it for a while. But I love it. I mean, I think it’s true. Okay, so let me rewind a little. It’s true that the poem at the end of the video emerged out of combining the Letraset and the images that I had been filming. And in a way, using those as a sort of generative process for then writing this poem that came after, if that makes sense. But [with] the Letraset, I knew I was establishing a set of words or a set of compositions, linguistically, that were going to become some sort of text. It was a kind of haptic divination process. When I originally talked to Ben [Cook, Director of the LUX] and Rachel [Garfield, Professor of Fine Art at the University of Reading] at LUX and the Dwoskin Project [the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project, The Legacies of Stephen Dwoskin’s Personal Cinema, which funded the commission] about the work, I related it back to a bigger body of writing that I’d been working on through the pandemic that is essentially a collection of poems. In describing it to them, I was saying, you know, it always ends up coming back to talking about the volatility of the body, and states of being wherein the body is volatile, in which I would include exhaustion, or dreaming, or drunkenness, or wilfulness for other ways of being. And, yeah completely, there’s a trans-ing going on. Transness as its own volatility.

Going back to the work I made before, WEED KILLER (2017), so much of that is invested in trying to feel what happens when the semiotics of the body gets disintegrated or taken away, taken apart and rearranged, whether through choice or force. And when these formal signs are fucked with in some way, and what happens in that reciprocal relationship between the self and external perception, from a community, essentially, these are the same concerns in this writing project that I was describing. Often, I start with a more formal set of phrases or sentences or prose, and then, exactly like you say, through repetition, decomposition, reorganising or rearrangement, a poem emerges out of it. And often that comes from a place of volatility,  a fixation on certain sounds, or trying to break things down to their fundamental efforts, these fundamental wills of language in the body. What ended up becoming a real preoccupation in this work, though, is a lot of my friends expressing the desire to die, or a wish to die, or an acceptance that they were going to die by suicide or chronic illness, and that just being a thing that was coming up a lot. This is the personal background to it, or the kind of personal life that was happening alongside the making of the work. And I was trying to wrap my head around what it means to be in relation with someone you love, someone you know, who is expressing to you that they want to die, and trying to circumnavigate the typical response, which to me feels like a very ableist response, which is to encourage someone to live. And trying to understand then what space that puts you into, if you’re not perpetually trying to encourage people to live. That is the subtext to the work.

 

word imprisoned superimposed on a background painted with pink rough brush strokes

The Prince of Homberg, P. Staff, 2019

 

JC: What it is to not attempt to transpose someone’s desire to die…. To me, that sounds like a practice of deep listening, including listening to the spaces where all the language falls apart.

PS: Mm hmm. Yeah, completely. And again, in some ways, I felt that I was able to give myself permission to go there via Dwoskin. That could be something that becomes very analytical in looking at Dwoskin’s work. Or it could just be the process of me saying, Okay, I’m working through someone else’s frame right now, and so I’m going to allow myself to ask this question and slightly liberate myself by saying, Okay, well, this question also permeates this other person’s work. So I’m going to let myself ask it too.

JC: That reminds me of the promiscuity that you were talking about before in terms of material promiscuity, but also permeable boundaries and borders between different artists and practices and people and manifestations of person.

I’m going to make an inelegant transition to the next question, which has something to do with this sort of shimmering, intangible sense, of responses, or channelling responses. Watching your work feels to me like following a series of scent trails, using systems in my body which are still trying to figure things out, which make me feel uneasy, because I don’t know if they work or not. For instance, I see in HEVN a powerful connection between colour, animation, text and digital image, as if there’s something lying in waiting for me to uncover. Some images I can see clearly: the shower, the street at night, the clinic, and some are much harder to determine, like hairs or scratches in the film stock. It feels a bit like peeking through a series of veils, but not quite. And that unease of unknowing and body instability is compelling. There’s the ticking clock or the metronome counting me down to the end of something that’s still unravelling. And yet HEVN‘s timeframe of five minutes is very precise. It is very rhythmically defined within that five-minute window, and that made me think of the precision of that editing process as well. So I’ve said a lot, but it’s to try and frame this aesthetic of unease that feels such an important part of your work to date, and I wanted to invite you to say a bit more about that.

PS:  I really appreciate the observations and it’s funny coming to it from the other side, of being the maker. A lot of the time, for me, that’s just a case of trying to balance an unbridled anarchy to making a work, and then giving it some overarching structure to even just give myself the context or the safety or the spacing to be able to work. It reminds me of when I used to do a lot of dance work. I was always really into improvisation, and finding this spot between total freedom and total discipline. It’s the space of the most potential, and the one where you have to be the most hyper-alert and the most deeply attuned. With something like giving myself a tight five minutes, it finds that split-point of being able to work super intuitively. I mean, this video work emerged more intuitively than anything I’ve made before – it really unfolded in the making of it. And I was just responding to how it unfolded, to get to the final point, you know. It’s that divination practice again. But at the same time, for me personally in the studio, if I just let that run its complete course, then I’m unanchored from it. And so using rhythm, timing, a countdown, like you say, that just starts to build in these structural points that then allow the ambiguous parts to come through. You can’t have a runaway train without a track, you know?

At the end of the day, I really love to edit. And a lot of the time, I’m just using basic techniques to manipulate an audience with editing. I feel at this point that I have my dirty little tricks to bring an emotional swell, or to hold something. I find it musical: it reminds me of pop songs. I often do the Nirvana-style loud, quiet, loud, quiet. You’re on this journey, a physical-emotional journey. In HEVN, a lot of the time, we’re hitting these crescendos, and then it drops suddenly into silence and then pulls you back up again, in that way that it almost feels like breathing. Or, you hold your breath for these brief few seconds before plunging back into it. Editing is so physical. I often cut when my eyes want to naturally blink, or hit rhythmic points with my breath, wrench physical feeling from sound. But I think in building that final run of the poem, and the metronome, and things falling away, to me just felt very emotionally intense, even just for myself in editing it. Yeah, so it’s just these affective practices in filmmaking. Is that a good answer? I don’t know.

JC: I love that answer. It’s making me think about creative constraint, and about creative constraints being this incredibly expansive practice that can involve just about everything, but that requires constraint in order to work. I love the fact that you mentioned divination, I was thinking about devotional practice as well, that kind of devotional practice of repetition.

PS: Yeah, completely.

JC: And also, that relationship between the cinematic and religious ritual. The way that you were talking about editing as this dynamic of pop culture, but particularly pop music,  made me think of conventional cinema as well – narrative-led cinema – and these things that have relationships to spirituality.

PS: Yeah. Again, there’s background, or the bits where one’s personal life seeps in. [During] a lot of the pandemic, I was taking all these online seminars about end-of-life care, and doing hospice work, which is kind of funny, because both my parents work in care homes. And so I have this childhood thing of growing up around nursing homes, and I’m taking these end of life care seminars. And then my partner, who I live with is a filmmaker, fully in the world of narrative, really structured, disciplined filmmaking. And so we end up having these dialogues about the structure of films, how narrative plays out, what’s a three act structure versus a five act structure, etc. All of these influences [that] come are very spiritual, creative but relate so much, like you say, to structure and convention. It’s all there.

JC: Creating a space for things to fall apart. In order for things to fall apart, there has to be a space in which they can do so.

PS: Mm hmm. Yeah, completely.

a white man lying on a hospital bed with his eyes closed. A closeup of a pair of hands caressing the man's face.
Intoxicated By My Illness, Stephen Dwoskin, 2001-2. Courtesy of the artist and LUX, London.

Intoxicated By My Illness, Stephen Dwoskin, 2001

 

JC: I want to make a switch to thinking about Dwoskin a bit more. As you were talking about care, the Dwoskin film that came up for me was INTOXICATED BY MY ILLNESS: INTENSIVE CARE PARTS I AND II (2001), which I know you and I’ve talked about before. I’ve been exploring Dwoskin’s relationship to gender in my research, particularly his complex sexuality as a disabled man, including his BDSM practices, and his relationship to his ageing and then ailing body. That’s the subject that he returned to in his late films, like INTOXICATED BY MY ILLNESS and THE SUN AND THE MOON (2008). You were talking earlier about finding these ways of developing, I guess what I would describe as a kind of channelling. And so, to me, it feels like that bodily unease, learning to live uneasily with illness while retaining sexual agency, also while retaining a relationship to mortality and death, really resonates with your work, your interests in queer and trans bodily volatility, transience, sickness, debility, exhaustion. Not to reclaim sickness as a triumph, but to live with it as a frame of life or maybe unlife.

PS: Exactly. I think I said in the Q&A at the screening [at the LSFF] that I don’t consider myself any sort of Dwoskin scholar. I don’t even know if I would count myself as a Dwoskin fan. But what I’ve always found in his work, and have definitely channelled more through this commission is, like I said in the Q&A, a kind of – I’m trying to think what the right word is – a willingness not to make, the subjects that he’s dealing with… He allows them to be as complex and uncomfortable as they are. And I feel like I’m making a trite point now, but there’s just a complete absence of apologising, for documenting, exploring, writing about his desire, his illness, his body. In the Q&A, I was clumsily trying to say how, I do feel that [in] a lot of the spaces that I work in, in terms of subject matters, there’s a sort of deference to trying always to recuperate and make whole and make legible and make kind of acceptable, I suppose. I hear a lot of apologising for being a freak in these spaces that sometimes I want to just like… rail against.

And there’s something very liberating about approaching Dwoskin. And this is even the stuff that makes me think, yeah, I don’t know if I’m that into Dwoskin, it’s that same impulse, where it’s very uncomfortable, or… unapologetic – I really can’t think of a better way of phrasing it. Like you touched on, that resistance to replaying certain narratives, a resistance to making a triumphalist narrative, or a resistance to always trying to make legible of the illegible. I feel like there’s always a lot of external pressure to explain, what does queerness do? What does transness do in this context? What does illness mean in this context? And having that space to pull back from those demands. And they are demands that I feel usually come from institutions, dominant structures, capitalist thinking. They’re not actually questions that happen on a lateral level between me and you, or me and any other person in my community. No one’s actually saying, “well, what does it mean that you’re sick?” Or what does it mean that you’re doing this thing? That is always a top-down question.

JC: The institutional demand for definition.

PS: Yes, and I think that, when we’re making art that is exploring these things, often, if you’re not being explicitly asked to recuperate or make that claim in your work, your work is being asked to make that claim for an institution. So your work is positioned in a museum or an institution as some signpost to a broader public, as to what this institution means or does or says. And so, it’s not that I feel that I’m on some great campaign. But finding a bit of shade, finding a bit of an umbrella, of something like coming in and doing this commission around Dwoskin’s work, is that brief moment of being in a spot of shade in an otherwise sunny, hot context or something! It’s that channelling, it’s that echolocation, again, of being a bit like, “oh, he’s bad, I can be bad. He’s not making it easy, I can not make it easy. I’m uncomfortable with him doing that thing. I’m going to let myself make say or make something that’s a bit uncomfortable.

JC: That feels like dance patterning, like contact improvisation.

PS:  Totally.

JC:  Yeah, this conversation is helping me to understand that relationship between you and Dwoskin. Less about inspiration from Dwoskin, and more about what happens in the space of creativity that can do something otherwise – as you were saying – that a commission can do otherwise than an institution.

PS: It’s liberating to feel “oh, yeah, I’m working in relationship to this work that I don’t even like that much.” But also liberating myself from whatever moral judgement is going on there. I like this idea that the things that you are most critical of, you have to be the most generous towards, and having that as a working framework or working ideology. I even think that as an artist, a lot of the time when you’re asked to be in dialogue with works, whatever that is, that have come before, there’s, again, some question or demand or assumption that you’re recuperating these older works. Or, by you being a person in the contemporary world, you’re giving these older works permission to exist in the now. And it’s been quite nice to just be like, “No, I’m not doing that with Dwoskin! I’m not doing that. We’re just taking it where it is.”

On a green background is a letter Z in fluorescent pink, ragged and torn.

Hevn, P. Staff, 2022

 

JC: There was a fifth question I had about cut-ups and collages and the discomfort that Dwoskin’s films provoke. But I think we’ve implicitly covered that by talking about this idea, which I love, of refusing to recuperate, refusing to recover, simply working with. And that that works against the sort of institutional reclaiming, that very often doesn’t work. Well, as you said, it works to serve the institution and the needs of the institution rather than the work, or creative practice.

PS: I think it also usually just makes us all a bit more stupid. I think it dulls a lot of the critical work that could be done. If we just acknowledged that sometimes things are bad. And that’s not a judgement, actually, it’s just holding complexity, rather than always seeking to smooth out these rough stones all the time.

JC: I agree. And I think it’s a very powerful drive in art, art history, art scholarship, and in film as well, film criticism, too. If something’s not elevated to the status of the good, then it can’t stay. And that isn’t actually how life—

PS: Which is how ableism functions.

JC: Oh, wow. An anti-eugenical art.

PS: I mean, it’s a stretch, but there’s something there, you know.

JC: If it’s not [perceived as] good as it can be thrown away. Which I’m almost certain was the reason why we have so few of the hundreds of films that Alice Guy-Blaché made, because the designations of quality were not operating in her favour, in early film history. Yeah, there’s something there, isn’t there: neither celebrating nor demeaning the quality of badness, discomfort, uncomfort. And not oversimplifying Dwoskin into this manufacture of the male gaze, or this disabled artist, or…

PS: Yeah, not smoothing him out into a contemporary frame, as much as the desire might be there. I think that is often what underpins it: on the one hand, there’s the institutional desire, but I think there’s also the personal desire to make this thing function in the present, because I want it and I want it to be in my life, and we’re taught not to tolerate [it]. Recently, I just had this whole conversation because we watched [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder’s IN THE YEAR OF 13 MOONS(1978), which is in some ways, a deeply problematic trans narrative that just can’t, is intolerable in the world of contemporary trans politics. And we just had this same conversation of “okay, how do  we let ourselves just take it as it is?” Anyway, tangents.

JC: Thoughts for another day. Ongoing thoughts. Ah, it’s been such a pleasure!

PS: It’s always nice to talk.

JC: Yeah. Thank you so much.

Hevn, P. Staff, 2022

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