The Magic Mineral: Interview with Sasha Litvintseva and Graeme Arnfield

by William Rees

Sasha Litvintseva and Graeme Arnfield’s current exhibition, Asbestos, is a meditation on the fragility of bodies, the nonlinearity of progress, and the persistence of matter. Used and traded for centuries, Asbestos’s toxicity was discovered through the invention of electron microscopes, changing the industry from one of extraction from the ground to extraction from the walls. Using footage shot on location in the old mining town of Asbestos, Quebec, alongside archival and found footage, the video charts the failed promises of the magic mineral.

Asbestos premiered at the Berlinale Forum Expanded (Berlin, Germany) earlier this year, and is currently being shown as part of an immersive installation at roaming projects, London. On the eve of Extracted and Circulated, a unique screening taking place at Close-Up Film Centre, the pair sat down with William Rees, curator of roaming projects, to discuss the exhibition.

William Rees: Could you begin by describing your individual practices. Sasha, you consider your work as geological filmmaking. Can you explain this term?

Sasha Litvintseva: Geological filmmaking is a concept I’m proposing in my current PhD research, as a visual and artistic strategy for the age of geological collapse. One of the things it involves is trying to visually address things that are invisible – either too vast or too small to be able to be seen, for example airborne asbestos being too small and climate change too dispersed. But I’m trying to not so much make the invisible visible, but question the epistemological value of visibility as such, and instead try and create experiences that provide an infrastructure within which the invisible become imaginable, and perhaps alternatives for the present and the future become imaginable. I am looking at reconceptualising the idea of landscape in a non-objectivising way, away from perspectivised representations and toward more performative approaches that question the boundaries of inside and outside. And reconceptualising filmic temporality as a way for embodied and geological temporalities to intersect.

WR: And Graeme, in your practice you work a lot with found footage, and I’ve also gathered you have an interest in translating materials into video.

Graeme Arnfield: Found footage tends to be the material that I’m repeatedly drawn to, which offers for me the most inherent qualities to talk about the things I find myself talking about. I had to sum it up I would say that my work tends to deal with circulation and networks and the affective relationships we have with images, sounds and stories. Seeing how that emotional attachment plays with things that destabilise our relationship with the world and ourselves. This is done by collecting and reframing materials found on YouTube through various essayistic techniques, materials which are usually violently embodied images of people reckoning their bodies with something outside their frame of perception, be that in terms of timeframes like the geological scales Sasha is talking about or with histories which have no apparent visual manifestations yet still shape and form our present. Basically I am drawn to moments where things get unstable and people turn to image making and world building in order to forge a temporarily secure and visible now and what happens to those images, sounds and stories when they become swallowed up by contemporary digital networks. I’m trying to see what is lost, what is gained, what lingers, what is rewritten (and by whom) in this process of distributed understanding.

Photo: Harry Mitchell

WR: So there’s a definite similarity in your approach to subject matter. You guys met at university, at Kingston on your Masters course. How did you come to work together, and how did you come to work on Asbestos?

GA: Asbestos was a preoccupation that we kept coming back to, that each time we would talk about it in all it’s manifestations we would find another facet of it that would make us want to delve in more. But we didn’t think about it as a film for a long time, more as a dark joke we would trot out over lunch.

SL: It was just a conversation point to start with. Towards the end of our MA, when we had been around each other throughout the process of making films, constantly conversing about our respective processes, we eventually decided to make a film together, but in an initially vague “We should make a film together” sort of way. And when we thought of what film that should be, we suddenly realised asbestos was a perfect vessel though which to talk about everything we’re interested in: all the failures of past progress, phenomena beyond the threshold of perception…

GA: … the fragility of bodies, endless matter, all these kinds of things. And it’s a project which felt that, because it had this play between extraction from the ground turning to extraction from the walls, a more interior kind of image making, that there was a really pleasing separation of our practices, from Sasha’s locational image making and my dislocated embodied found footage, bed-bound practice, which if assembled together would perfectly work for this film.

SL: Exactly. The way the collaboration worked was dictated by our previous individual modes of working but also by what the material demanded. The two kinds of extraction of asbestos itself are mirrored in the two kinds of image extraction that we pursued – my extraction of images from physical forms, and Graeme extracting images from their original contexts.

WR: To speak a bit more about those two different kinds of extraction. Sasha, tell me more about when you went to the town of Asbestos. What expectations you had of the place? Were those expectations fulfilled?

SL: We marched through almost the entire town on Google Street View beforehand, so as to make sure to find everything that was important not to miss in the short time I’d be able to physically be there. However, when we were actually there – we being me and Benjamin Taylor, who was hosting me in Montreal and very kindly drove me to Asbestos and recorded sound and was generally very helpful in the run up (shout out to Ben) – in the course of one afternoon we drove down every single street in the town and saw a million things that ended up in the film that we could never have predicted remotely. It massively surpassed anything we could have hoped for. Although the way I usually work with locations, there is nothing Asbestos could have been that could have been disappointing as such, because it can only be itself and it’s precisely what it is that is of interest. We had seen images of the mine before and knew we wanted to look for parts of town that betray its industrial history and the collapse thereof, but what was a pleasant surprise was that the residential areas were an image of perfect and perfectly cinematic North American suburbia. It was quite uncanny.

GA: Uncanniness is definitely a word I was thinking about throughout. I mean as I was staying in bed in my Asbestos ridden home in London getting sent images of the places Sasha and Benjamin were witnessing I was instantly reminded of the kind of locations which make up a lot of 70s horror films I love – Halloween and Carrie etc.

SL: And what became our favourite scene in our film is of these suburban streets of Asbestos toward the very end of the film.

GA: That scene feels like a toxic accumulation of all the things that had come before it.  Suddenly all these spaces that previously felt quite mundane in that American suburban way revealed this toxic material history underneath their surface, this unspoken thing that had ruptured from the ground and was now lurking in your attic, hiding behind your walls and lingering inside of you waiting to emerge monstrously in the present. It feels like this highly collaborative moment: even if it was Sasha that filmed the material it was given weight by everything that had come before in the film.

Photo: Alex F Webb

WR: Graeme, the archival footage you found, is it all from YouTube, or are you delving into other film archives? Or do you like to keep this secret?

GA: It is all material gathered from YouTube. The thing about YouTube and the histories of technologies like it are that they eat up all things before them; they are ecological rather than additive in terms of technological change and as YouTube has eaten up the history of moving images on there you can find so many different forms of image making rubbing against each other. You can find amazing semi-amateur educational films from the 70s and 80s, which are the kind of things you can find in traditional film archives, pooled alongside visceral first person home movies that workers film on their phones to counter the boredom of abating asbestos all day. In this way there is still a hierarchy of images, but the dichotomy of legitimised archive or films of historical note versus perceived image detritus without much merit or long lasting significance isn’t quite there. Instead it’s a hierarchy of attention, of succinct metadata, of virality…for better or worse. As for the collected images all of them were made post the legal understanding of Asbestos as this toxic bogeyman that had to be dealt with, none of them are made from the heyday of Asbestos as the magic mineral but they’re all in the fallout of that promise. They come from all over the world, or places where YouTube as I know it as an English speaking Internet user is prevalent. In contrast with the static space of Asbestos the town, asbestos the mineral was distributed worldwide and as such so are the images of its removal, circulated again as images. Also I should add that I find it important in terms of my practice that YouTube exists as a platform where I research, collect and compile but also it’s a place where I relax; it’s where I get entertainment and pass the time. The delineation between viewing and production is very blurred perhaps as it’s all the same thing.

WR: You’ve previously screened this film, and now you’ve shown it as part of what is your first video installation, for both of you.

SL: We’ve shown films installed before, but not in such an immersive, sculptural way, or in a way that we had as much control over.

WR: How did you come to the decision of the install being as it is? I know it’s based on the last shot of the film. And in installing it, how has it made you think differently about the video itself, and the audience too?

SL: I should probably just describe it first quickly. The install is based in a disused ground floor shop space, and that was an amazing opportunity to make people go into a place that could conceivably be permeated by this toxicity.

WR: Especially as the space was given to us late, precisely because they were checking for asbestos in the building.

SL: Quite. There are four rooms in the space, and the video is in the final room. As you arrive at the exhibition, before getting to the film you have to work your way through three rooms wrapped in red plastic, like the space in the last shot of the film. This set up almost has a semblance of functionality, in terms of asbestos removal, but also has a theatricality to it that denies functionality. But what I’ve been thinking about a lot, having now experienced the space, is that it draws out in completely new ways a couple of important themes already present in the film: the distinction between inside and outside, and between presencing and absencing. Asbestos is able to comingle with our bodies on the cellular level, breaching the boundaries of our insides. Meanwhile the spaces it occupies become toxic, and so the presence of asbestos absences a potential human subject, precisely because it is able to pass from outside to inside it. In the film this is made evident in the layers of plastic separating the removal workers from the spaces they occupy: we never see their bodies, we never see their faces, they occupy their hazmat suits more than the architectures that surround them. The viewer of the film then becomes a witness to places that otherwise preclude human presence. But in the immersive installation scenario this is taken much further as the viewer becomes a physical presence in a space that surrounds them entirely, a space that radiates an atmosphere of enveloping bodily threat. They enter the inside of the work, if you will, instead of viewing it from the outside. And they themselves become an embodied presence, but not only in the sense of experiencing the work viscerally, but also in the sense of becoming a part of the work visually: we handed out hazmat suits for all visitors, so everyone became part of each other’s visual experience.

Photo: Alex F Webb

WR: I’ve also been thinking about how chance has played a part in both the video and the installation. In the space, there are these three different ceilings that work so well as they seem to reference shots from the film. When we were installing, you spoke about people thinking certain moments of the archival footage had being purposefully edited to look degraded, when in fact that is just how you’d found it.

GA: The images you’re alluding to are the 70s and 80s educational documentaries, which are glitchy and colourised in interesting ways. But this wasn’t an artistic gesture on our part, making the images falsely reacting to the toxicity of airborne asbestos; that’s the condition we found them in.

SL: The artistic gesture was rather us choosing to use this material precisely for the quality of its deterioration. There is a moment where the presenter is saying he wishes people would just turn green or blue immediately so that they’d know they’d had asbestos exposure, meanwhile his skin colour has decolourised to blue: that is why we’re using it, not the other way around. The tape becomes a material witness. Of course it has not been ruined by asbestos itself, but what it’s witnessing is the entropy and latency of time, and the inevitable destruction of materiality in time. That documentary hails from a time when cutting edge scientific imaging technology had just made airborne asbestos visible, and thus turned around its material history, and all that once-cutting edge technology in this discoloured, glitchy film, is itself out of date by now. This is juxtaposed with my HD footage from Asbestos, Quebec, of deteriorating industrial apparatuses stuck in this town, and although the visual quality of the material is very different, both the shot and found footage combine one element that is cutting edge and another that is falling into disrepair. And the HD footage itself will feel dated in five years time, because of how fast digital imaging technology is developing.

WR: Sound is also so important, both in the film and the installation.

GA: Sound is always really important, and I think especially when you’re dealing with bodies and an idea of piercing and infection. So the film has three sections of score I made, each are pulverised adaptations, remixes of each other, which over the duration of the film arrive at certain amount of clarity and form but never fully announce themselves as what they are, because what they are is the phrase “asbestos” repeatedly spelled out through the notes. Not in a chromatic scale way but through translating those notes onto my computer keyboard. There was something about using the phrase “asbestos” as this unseen structural force that would pierce the body and be the hidden mantra underneath the surface of the film that seemed to play nicely with the things we wanted to talk about. This also gave me the chance to score a nude male shower sequence, which I never thought I would do in my life, so that was fun. In terms of the installation, the idea was to pump the sound loud, letting it seep into and contaminate all the other rooms of the show. So you feel the film before you see it, feeling it, having it affect your body before you can really name its providence.

WR: And now there is the screening, which you’ve described as a compilation or assembly of works and footage to create a new work.

SL: Essentially it’s a screening of Asbestos and one more work of ours each, all of which deal with non-human communication attempts in different ways, interspersed with found material that does the same, at times more successfully ha.

GA: I’ve always wanted to commingle our work with materials that we have found online through research, collecting images for future projects or just algorithmically stumbling on them and finding them potent. They are images which relate to these topics that Sasha mentioned but aren’t pronounced as canonical pieces of art or filmmaking, they just sit there, often with criminality low view counts, waiting to be deleted when YouTube decides it needs more server space.

SL: Not even canonical as such, but not pieces of art or filmmaking in any kind of intentional way. And so by showing them together and on equal footing with our own works what we are going for is an attempt at dissolving the difference between artwork and other. There is about twenty minutes of found material interspersed with our works, the credits to which have been eliminated, so there is no explanation as to the origin of any of it.

GA: Until the end point, when we have a larger credit section where we credit the people who made the found videos and the people who helped us make our own.

SL: This is a politically informed gesture as an attempt to question the supposed preciousness of authorship. Presenting all this material together without announcing their original contexts we are looking to destabilise the hierarchies of artistic and other intentionalities, and foreground instead what all the videos are able to achieve.

Asbestos, by Sasha Litvintseva and Graeme Arnfield, 2016.

Sasha Litvintseva & Graeme Arnfield have curated a screening at Close-up Cinema, tomorrow 29 March 2017, 7.30pm: Extracted and Circulated. Their show at roamingprojects, Asbestos, is open until 2 April 2017.


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