By Daniel & Clara. Originally published in Film Panic Magazine, issue 7, December 2018
Vicky Langan & Maximilian Le Cain are two artists based in Cork, Ireland, who create moving image works and performances. Individually they have both produced a large body of work – Vicky mostly as a performer and sound artist, and Max mostly as a filmmaker – but it is their work together that we focus on here.
Watching through their films one really gets the sense of witnessing the development of a collaboration – a tactful, delicate beginning grows, film by film, into a strong partnership where trust allows for more adventurous and profound investigations to occur. Between them they have a created a space of vulnerability and intimacy that can contain intense emotional explorations, from troubling disquietude, anguish and desolation to playfulness, desire and calm contemplation.
Their first work Light/Sound could be seen as a document of the first steps of two artists coming together and finding out how to exist in a common space; keeping close watch of the other’s presence and gestures while letting themselves go on their own personal explorations. Their focus at first is on interacting with the resonances of sound and the capturing of images through the camera lens, and each of their inputs remains to a great extent in their own arena, Max on the camera and Vicky creating sound and being in front of the lens. But as their collaboration progresses these roles become less fixed. From Brine Twice Daily onwards both start performing in front of the camera, introducing a world of narrative and performative games that transform abandoned spaces and domestic environments into testing grounds for behavioural transgressions.
In their films, words are shunned in favour of sensory exploration, with a special emphasis on tactile contact – as if a touch of the fingers is a more apt way to sense the inner life of objects and of one’s own body. While there is the desire for contact and for physical connectivity, there is also a sense of a barrier, an impossibility of breaking through the solidity of matter, as if the physical being, the solid form of the body itself, is a barrier to this.
Our sense of touch is amplified by the soundtrack – we hear fingers tapping, scratching, rubbing and scraping, as well as impact sounds between objects, and between the body and other objects. But the dominant sounds are coming from within the body itself, such as breathing, gurgling, sucking and moaning, positioning the viewer just under the skin, suddenly very aware of the rhythms and mechanisms of the body.
The crackling and trembling tone of the soundtracks goes hand in hand with the fuzzy, frequently low-light images, often captured on miniDV in a loose searching handheld style. The editing rhythms however show a precise craft, continuously carrying the images near to the point of disintegration and discontinuity but without letting it all fall apart, going just close enough for us to feel the delicate nature of it all – images, materials, environments and humans destined to turn to dust.
D&C: Could you each say a few words about your background and how you started making performances and films?
MAX: Around age 9, I made the surprising discovery that not everyone wanted to make films. Cinema was always my greatest fascination and making films seemed like what I’d do as a matter of course. If experiencing cinema began as purely a source of delight and entertainment, it then became a way to learn about the intricacies of the adult world, and finally revealed itself as a formidable tool for exploring the interaction of memory, perception and feeling. A much needed buffer zone between inner and outer reality, where the two could play off each other under controlled conditions. I began trying to make narrative films as a teenager but already in a very personal mode. By the time I met Vicky, my work had become decidedly experimental, obsessed with giving direct access to private states of mind through a restless preoccupation with the body’s relationship to the moving image. At that time, I was churning out work at a frantic rate, not all of it particularly watchable or worthwhile. I felt I was trying to pulverise the ‘audio-visual unit’ (I call it this because it was often beaten into something far less integral than a ‘shot’) almost in an effort to tear at the fabric of reality itself. There are some positive aspects to this fury of experimentation but also a violence that can become empty, especially if it gives account of an existential condition that it ultimately reveals as a solipsism that dares not speak its name. I felt I was falling through a void, bracing myself to collide with total creative bankruptcy. Instead, I encountered Vicky and her work and, in starting to collaborate with her, I found something deeply precious to work with – something uncompromising and beautiful and mysterious. All the lessons I’d learned could now be put to work in nurturing something special rather than simply going through increasingly forced contortions.
VICKY: A dramatic hand accident during a gig led me to pull out of my music degree when I was 18. I continued freely collaborating with friends in the experimental Irish underground and was shown how to make contact mics by Mick O’ Shea, a Cork-based artist. I now use contact mics on my skin, my hair, my mouth, inside myself. Field recordings play a big role too (see further down). In the early days of myself and Max’s collaborative partnership, I remembering feeling an enormous sense of freedom when it came to filming together. I didn’t have to worry about performing to a live audience and felt more liberated the more I thought about that.
D&C: How did you first meet and what was the first project you worked on together?
VICKY & MAX: We live in Cork, a small city with an accordingly small but congenial arts scene. It’s a great town for getting on with your own thing, and other creative people tend to be very supportive even if what you’re doing is not what they’re interested in. In terms of experimental work, Cork has a strong reputation for sound art. We both became aware of each other just from both being around, and we both simultaneously became very intrigued by each other without having met. This was late 2009. Vicky had recently started a regular music event called Black Sun, which brought many renowned underground musicians and other performers to Ireland for the first time. It was run completely independently, on the precarious combination of much love and almost no money. Contact was first made when Max was invited to start programming experimental films for Black Sun. This was our first collaboration and we continued with Black Sun for the next four years. We were both constantly amazed by how perfectly our programming choices seemed to mesh. Not only did we hit it off as friends but it soon became obvious that there was a strong shared sensibility between us. Our first film together was Light/Sound, which was shot very soon after we met in a recently closed down cinema. Looked at in retrospect, it seems like a clear statement of the basic elements of the collaboration to come: Vicky records and responds to the sounds of a chugging 35mm projector and bathes in its flickering light. Film, sound, body/presence all activating each other: now let’s see where we can take this…
D&C: How has working together influenced you and possibly brought out interests/things that you may not otherwise have arrived at?
VICKY & MAX: Very much so. Our respective backgrounds in experimental sound/performance and in film have meant that we’ve been able to educate each other in these fields, and there have been revelations galore for both of us in this ongoing process. It was certainly part of the fun of Black Sun – both of us making exciting discoveries through what the other was programming.
D&C: To us some of your films feel close to portraiture, do you think of them in this way? Where for you is the line between a fiction or performance and a document of an individual?
MAX: I’ve always been strongly drawn to portraiture in cinema. I seem to remember that Renoir said what inspired him to make films in the first place were certain close-ups of actresses in silent movies and I can really understand that. In fact, my favourite films of all time are Garrel’s Les Hautes Solitudes and Le Berceau De Cristal, which are nothing but wordless portraits, and have definitely informed the work I’ve done with Vicky. But, for me, they resonate with Vicky’s work on a deeper level than just portraiture for the sake of it. What Garrel does in those films is place the viewer in an intensely intimate proximity with the women he films, creating a profound affective link with them. Yet what makes the films so unbearably powerful is how mysterious they remain – we have little or no sense of what causes the pain they are going through even though we witness its results. We’re placed in a space charged with very personal emotion in which we not only observe isolation but come to experience an aching isolation of our own through not being able to know the other. This reveals both a primal power of cinema as portraiture and a deep truth about the limits of human communication with a unique force and clarity. Vicky’s live performances, through different but often comparably simple means, create a similar sensation. She’s able to generate an incredible emotional charge through certain sounds, gestures and objects that seem loaded with personal meaning that remains hidden and is probably inexpressible through words.
VICKY: A lot of our earlier work together was, to some extent, built around documentation of my performances. I wasn’t approaching it with the sort of film historical framework Max has, or thinking of it in terms of portraiture. I just felt that it was right; it was true to the feeling of being in that situation, in that emotion. But what quickly became clear and came to define the way we worked with this material was that the way these films were edited gave a far better sense of what the performances were than just straight documentation, even if they didn’t literally show what went on in a performance, or had a totally different structure, or included a lot of other footage. Simply setting up a camera and recording a performance never satisfied me. Making films from scratch, with or without actual performance documentation, is a far truer way of approaching what the performances can achieve if seen live than simply recording them.
D&C: Your work is clearly informed by a wide knowledge and love of cinema, some of your films conjure (while also subverting) particular genres and characters – Wilderness Notes takes on the wasteland setting of the Western with a lone gunslinger, Brine Twice Daily is reminiscent of the mystery films of Louis Feuillade but maybe with a dash of Duras’ melancholic coastal resorts, and Play Ground brings to mind an amalgamation of Rivette and Zwartjes. What films have had the most influence on you both and how have they informed your own processes?
VICKY & MAX: So many films exist in the DNA of our work that trying to give a comprehensive answer would be impossible. But it’s worth saying that in recent years we’ve approached film history in a far more direct and playful way. Six or seven of our earlier films, made between 2010 and 2013, really function like a cycle of works, all rooted in Vicky’s performance practice. Last year they were screened at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music Festival one after the other without credits, like a single feature, in a format proposed by Rouzbeh Rashidi. They worked very well this way and seeing them like this proved that they were a closed chapter. The current phase of our work really began in 2015 with Brine Twice Daily. This film saw Max appearing in front of the camera for the first time and Vicky doing more work behind it. It grew organically over about a year, shooting a bit here, a bit there. Duras and Feuillade were definite references and there is a fun, B-movie vibe to some of it. But it is also, of course, a very loose DIY take on these cinematic references, which become completely personalised. Since then, we more consciously approach a new project in terms of tackling a style or a genre, but we’re really like children deciding what to ‘play’ on any given day. Our process is exploratory and in recent years film references have become the beacons we use in navigating our very personal territory, and especially in starting projects. So Wilderness Notes began as simply as ‘let’s do a Western’ – we had enough funding on that one to rent a horse for a few hours, so westward we went. In The Place Of Origin is like a ‘60s art movie haunted by the final minutes of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse. Play Ground was made as a homage to Frans Zwartjes, a filmmaker we both love very deeply, for a tribute screening to him. We approached our new film, Double-Blind, as a cross between a Jack Smith hallucination and a Jess Franco horror movie found abandoned half-edited on a mouldy VHS tape. Dressing up and indulging in absurd behaviour is creeping in more and more, and yet the resulting films seem to strike people as dark and unsettling rather than silly. There is a deep weirdness, and a sense of isolation and interiority, and perhaps even of perversion, that seems to permeate everything we do. The exception to the general darkness is Brine Twice Daily which, even though we never appear on screen together in it, seems like a celebration of the real-life connection between us, a joyful psychic call and response. Maybe that’s why it’s our favourite – we call it our ‘buddy movie’. In the other films that we both appear in, our characters seem to frustrate and even repel each other. Play Ground and Inside venture into some very bleak and sad psychosexual circumstances.
D&C: The body is a frequent subject of your films, there seems to be a confrontation between the physicality of the performer and the objects that surround them or the spaces which they inhabit. Could you say a few words on your interest in the body as a subject and material?
VICKY & MAX: The ultimate goal of our work is to give an audience a vivid experience of an inner feeling, one that is first experienced by the body. The body, as the sentient material that links our inner being with the material world, and the primary conductor of the sensations which define these relationships, is naturally central to our work. But as a material rather than as a subject in itself. It’s an object amongst objects, and material in general is what is important to us. The body occupies a privileged place amongst materials, perhaps, but we don’t regard it in isolation. There can be confrontations between the body and objects, but equally the body can find itself extended through objects, or objects through the body. A line from a synopsis we wrote for In The Place Of Origin perhaps best expresses this: “The uncertain limits of the human body gauge the tensions between elements of the material world that pass as strangers but not without reflecting each other in surprising and unsettling ways”.
D&C: Some of the films also contain resonances of fairytales, particularly when the golden-braided character of Wölflinge is present, could you talk about this character and how she came about? Are fairytales an inspiration for you?
VICKY: Ah, that was the performance name I used when I began making solo work. It came from a series of terrifying recurring nightmares I had when I was pregnant, where wolves would surround and devour me, starting with my stomach/middle. I had previously been happy collaborating with friends on various music projects but felt at that time that I had nothing that needed expressing in a solo capacity. The physical process of continuing with a crisis pregnancy at 19 (teeth loosening in their sockets, hair falling out in my hands in the shower, blood, mucus, severe constipation, skin discolouration etc.) was exciting and frightening all at once. I had never been as aware of, or as constantly surprised by my own body before. By the end of my first year of being a mother, I knew that this newfound sensitivity, resilience and raw energy could be channeled through the cathartic performances I went on to make at the time. Wölflinge or ‘little wolf’ was not a character, instead it was a way of putting a name to the latent unconscious potentials within me, as experienced in that series of frightening dreams. I have long since outgrown the name. As for fairytales, our work touches upon the unrealities of the everyday, charges between people, discovery, uncertainty, doubt… Yes, they would be an inspiration in the way imagery and moods can permeate our mind and stay with us long after childhood. Growing up, my favourites were Bluebeard, The Red Shoes and the Juniper Tree.
D&C: What is your process for creating sound design?
VICKY & MAX: Sound design generally comes last, when the picture is edited. Vicky is responsible for creating the sound on almost every film. Sometimes we mix and layer it together, sometimes it’s just a case of synching up completely finished tracks. The sounds used tend to be field recordings, but field recordings in which she is somehow intervening in the sound being recorded, creating part of it through interacting with the environment she is recording in. Running, digging, pushing. Sometimes there are tracks created with instruments; sometimes there are more intimate sounds – often bodily sounds – recorded using hydrophones or contact mics. A notable exception was Inside. At a certain stage of post-production it became clear that we needed to include a totally different type of sound to contrast with Vicky’s, so we asked Declan Synnott to contribute to the soundtrack. His modular synth pieces are an immense addition to the film.
D&C: You performed together in Rouzbeh Rashidi’s film Trailers, your scenes in this film echo some elements of your own work. In one of our favourite scenes Vicky screams and claws at Max’s body in a sort of primitive ritual, or even an exorcism – it’s a wild and unforgettable sequence! What was it like performing in Trailers and how did these scenes come about?
VICKY & MAX: Rouzbeh has been a very close friend and collaborator for many years, and he was looking for people he could trust to go as far as was necessary in these very important scenes – so he thought of us! We had complete confidence in him and his vision, so we just followed his instructions and let go. It’s always a pleasure performing for Rouzbeh, he creates such a safe atmosphere in the way he talks you through the scene while shooting. It was actually a lot of fun to do, very intense but we all came out afterwards on a high. As we went through the scene, the energy just built and built, and Rouzbeh kept gently ramping the action up. We felt like musical instruments that he was freely improvising on. We’re really proud to be part of that film.
D&C: Your most recent film Inside is your first feature film together, for us this was one of our favourite films of 2017, a truly beautiful and haunting creation. Many of your reoccurring motifs appear but there is a sense of moving into something new. What was the inspiration for Inside? What was the process of creating the film?
VICKY & MAX: Inside was first conceived in late 2015. We wanted to do a feature and the idea was very simple: to give Vicky a house in the country and allow her to interact with this domestic space and its isolated surroundings, to give her performance concerns more space and time to unfold in. It was never supposed to be a naturalistic setting, more the slightly out-of-time reflection of an interior life (in fact our first treatment began: ”This film is set on the planet Solaris…”). Some Irish critics have written about it as if we were attempting a commentary on the social problem of rural isolation, which is rather like discussing A Matter of Life and Death as a study of WWII aviation. We then shelved the project for a while because we went back to college and both did the same year-long MA course in Fine Art. Over that year, certain guest lecturers – all talented and well-meaning people – complained that our work was too emotion-based and personal to fit into the contemporary art world. We were both told that we were still living in the ‘60s, which became an in-joke with us as the year went on. Shortly after we finished the course, we were approached by Matt Packer, a curator who was in charge of putting together TULCA, a fairly high-profile annual art event in Ireland. The theme of TULCA that year was basically exploring ideas that develop from the countercultural psychology of the ‘60s/‘70s, seeking to reclaim an alternative future for self and society in today’s perspective. Matt invited us to exhibit as part of this and we liked his approach: he was adamant that there be no irony about naïve hippies, no condescension and nothing that simply wrote that counterculture off as a failure. As soon as our meeting with him was over, we just looked at each other and laughed: we’d basically got this amazing opportunity thanks to “still living the ‘60s”! And Inside was a perfect fit for this, with its depiction of radical withdrawal from society and confrontation with the self. Probably on the basis of the TULCA platform, we were able to get the film funded, making it one of only two films out of the fifteen we’ve made that we didn’t pay for out of our own pockets.
We had to make it very fast to meet the TULCA deadline and we knew that location was all-important. So much of our process is about responding to place. We were unbelievably lucky in that respect, finding an amazing wooden house on sixty acres of bio-diverse garden in the hills of County Kerry through Airbnb. We had everything from mountain to woodland to herb garden right on our doorstep. And the house was absolutely perfect. It didn’t feel at all like a typical Irish cottage, which helped make the film more like a private universe and less rooted in a specific social context. There’s maybe even something of the Russian dacha about it: we really were on Solaris! Another difference from our other films was that we needed to bring someone else in to do camera for us, given the number of scenes in which we both appear together. Dean Kavanagh, a filmmaker with a particular genius for picking up on unsettling rural atmosphere, was kind enough to fill this role. So the three of us went up to the location and lived there for five days, completely cut off from the outside world and not seeing another soul. None of us even drive, so we were delivered there on the first day and rescued on the last. They were five days of very concentrated work. We pre-planned the scenes in more detail than we usually do, but also improvised a lot in responding to the location. Perhaps the most significant detail added this way was making Max’s disturbing unwanted baby-husband-vegetable character almost literally like a plant by showing him first asleep naked ‘growing’ in the shed.
We shot at the very end of June and had to have the film ready for October. We were working fulltime in July, and editing every night. Then we were away for the whole month of August, in Paris making Play Ground, so the plan was to have a rough cut done by the end of July and then polish that up and do the sound in September, having got some distance from what we’d done. It went quite smoothly with perhaps, as mentioned before, the realisation that we needed someone else to contribute to the soundtrack the only major surprise.
D&C: What are you working on next?
VICKY & MAX: Carrying on from our performance at LUFF festival, we recently presented a new film/performance called Double-Blind at the Cork Midsummer Festival. A big step for us last year was to start doing live performances together, and this will become a bigger feature of our work together moving forward. In the longer term, we’re also in the beginning stages of planning some new gallery-based work involving 16mm film. We’d also like to do a film about magic tricks and illusionism sometime soon.
Find out about Vicky Langan’s work at www.vickylangan.com
Find out about Maximilian Le Cain’s work at www.maximilianlecain.com