CORPO-REALITY AND FILM: EXQUISITE CORPSES, CHIMERAS AND BODIES

Interior: an Exquisite Corpse film in two parts, 2020

Sapphire Goss introduces ‘Interior: an Exquisite Corpse film’ (2020), a collaborative project created during the covid-19 lockdown.

 

I am an artist whose film work builds hybrid forms. Varied techniques and material processes are used to fragment, splice and manipulate footage. Myriad sources are sutured together, cut and pasted, blended, collaged, or shown simultaneously both in editing and projection/display. I see these as multiple ‘eyes’ or viewpoints: antique lenses and optics (what I call ‘Eyes of Time’); footage collected from multiple contributors (‘Eyes of Others’); and organic elements (‘Eyes of Nature’). All films are chimerical assemblages, using montages of image, sound and time layered together in infinite ways. Even when they are made by an ensemble of people, they are on the whole treated as a product of a singular vision – the auteur. Much as our bodies are made up of cells and chemical processes but are felt as whole, mainstream moving images – from a YouTube video to a Hollywood blockbuster – are generally treated as a complete object, immutable, unchanging. A fixed spectre or simulacrum of reality and an entire self-contained world. I aim to make multi-narrative Franken-films that wear the stitches of assembly visibly, challenging the idea that there is one seamless truth, one reality and one way of seeing the world. In a precarious climate that is increasingly polarised, can hybrid forms, arranging their parts in strange and new combinations, draw attention to the way different versions of reality are constructed, helping to dissolve these entrenched divides and show a common humanity?

In the midst of lockdown I facilitated a film made by a group of participants from around the world. Interior (2020) is a collective project that brings together people with varied backgrounds and levels of filmmaking experience to create a collaborative film, a snapshot of a very particular and strange time. It took the form of an ‘exquisite corpse’ – a method invented by the Surrealists based on the parlour game ‘Consequences’. Words or images are created as a group sequentially but blind: each person only seeing the last fragment of what the previous person has made. Using this set of rules, people from around the world created video documents of their lives and homes – of their interiors and the world they see from them. The work migrates between forms, materials, genres and viewpoints, creating a polyphonic whole, a collective portrayal of the world in a time of flux and fracture.

 

 

Left: Un Chien Andalou, 1929, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. Right: Metropolis, 1927, Fritz Lang

 

Films are by their nature chimerical creations: limbs of time recorded, cut and reordered to create the illusion of a consummate body. From cinema’s early alchemists such as Segundo De Chomón and Georges Méliès, or explicitly films like Edison’s The Magician (1900), a sleight of hand and a trick of the eye and Karloff’s Frankenstein or the Golem or Robot Maria – all the bodies, real and imagined, come to life. Jump cuts in static set-pieces evolved to close-ups, to shot reverse shot, to deep focus, to montage, to bullet time, to the fast-moving, feverish, computer game fantasy of 3D animation. Whether the harmonious hallucinations of classic Hollywood cinema, poured into the bombshell hourglass of the classic 3-act structure, to the rhythmic dancing fragments of early Soviet cinema, film is a composite: fragments of time and place welded together with optical trickery, the seams smoothed out by sound, to create a unified apparition of story and memory. Even since the beginning of cinema people tried to subvert this – the Surrealists themselves would walk in and out of cinema to create meanings through juxtaposition of the different film clips. But films largely remain seen as impermeable beings unto themselves.

The Exquisite Corpse has been used as an experimental technique since its inception to create work that uses chance and juxtaposition to create new forms and meanings. Historical variations include drawing, writing, collage and music based versions (such as Party Pieces (Sonorous and Exquisite Corpses), c.1945), and a film in which the script had been developed using this process (Exquisite Corpse Project, 2012). Having seen a music version advertised on Twitter, I floated the idea of doing an experimental film version. I got a positive response, the sparks flew and suddenly the corpse began to come to life. Some simple game rules were put into place. The volunteers were put in a randomly generated order. Each person received a 10 second prompt taken from the end of the preceding person’s film. From this stimulus (which was often very abstract) they made a 60-90 second film which they could take in any direction they wanted, choosing to hard cut or blend in from the clip fragment they are given. Each person created something blind that could veer off in a multitude of directions, creating a narrative of infinite possibilities. Those different parts from around the world were later stitched together into one body, a Frankenstein’s monster of a film. 

 

 

Extimacy, 2019-20, Sapphire Goss

 

Mutants, monsters, chimeras or other body aberrations tend to be an expression of anxiety in times of upheaval and fluctuating boundaries. Horrifying medieval demons and bestiaries were allegorical images, delineating Christian moral boundaries in the face of a terrifying unknown world; the industrial revolution produced gothic monsters like Frankenstein. Now cyborgs and other hybrids are products of a world deeply embedded with technology and virtual realities and experiences. This is a time of upheaval, fragmentation and division. The body is curiously centred at this time as viral fractals puncture our vulnerabilities in more ways than one. As the world becomes more isolated physically and more divided ideologically we need narratives that are multifaceted and complex while still being compelling. 

We use stories to smooth out and build our understanding of the real world in the face of complexities; what Stuart Hall describes in a 1984 interview as ‘the narrative construction of reality’. History, news, received wisdom, national or local identities are all constructs that can be useful or toxic, especially if we see these as an immutable, unchangeable and inevitable reality. This is not to say we don’t need narratives to make sense of the world and ourselves. We do, very much so, but not the same ones told by the same people, that ossify and reinforce the same hierarchies and structures. Narrative currents and veins can be galvanising but can also flood poison through the system. Can using hybrid techniques enable us to achieve the same disruptions and forge new paths to understanding in an increasingly polarised world? Can we show there is more than one version of the truth? 

As the project commenced under full lockdown in April I chose the overarching theme, ‘interior’, to give people a steer and make the possibilities less overwhelming (though it would be interesting to try it without this). This topic was chosen as it was relevant and important to people across the world and achievable under the constraints of lockdown. Any audiovisual format would be accepted from one shot on a mobile phone to animation. Instead of cameras and editing software, emails and other admin tasks were the tools used to gestate and birth this collaborative creation into existence. The closest thing to a script was some bare bones instructions, a random name picker and a spreadsheet. This is filmmaking as arranging and of admin, rather than of conventional directing!

 

Exquisite corpse instructions for Interior.

 

Two simultaneous strands were started from the same prompt – partly for practical reasons, i.e. to speed up the process which works as a sequential chain, and partly to see what different outcomes could occur from the same stimuli. It would be interesting to continue the project, perhaps adding more branches to make a spatial film form as well as linear and temporal, navigated by random generation or interactive choices. Maybe the film could go on forever.

I have previously made collaborative films using footage gathered from multiple voices from multiple participants, brought together in different ways. I like the idea of my films not having a static, auteur viewpoint but being made of choral layered voices and unexpected perspectives. Lug-Li (2018) was developed with producer Clare Maloney and the Canal & Rivers Trust with students from the Lea Valley. Students took part in a walking smartphone filming workshop around the canal in Enfield. Each student edited their own short film from the footage they had shot. I edited and layered clips from all of them with some local archive photos to make a film that depicted Enfield through the multiple viewpoints of the participants. Eternity City (2018) also used smartphone filming workshops & ‘Living Slides’, the outputs of which fed into a giant multi-channel installation – projected onto screens made from real plants, in the windows of the old bus station in Milton Keynes. The workshops were created to inspire people to experiment using smartphone cameras, free apps and filters made from discarded waste materials and natural elements. The idea is to make use of a relatively accessible technology (that most people have permanently in their hands like cyber appendages) as a way to rediscover our surroundings. 

 

 

Eternity City, 2018, Sapphire Goss. Multi-channel video installation on mixed media screen, infinite loop, (details).

 

An interesting outcome of the process of making Interior has been the interaction with this virtual global community of strangers assembled through social media. Many of the artists I have never met, and have never met each other, but have shared intimate snippets of their lives through the films and the interviews. The contributors span from video artists to filmmakers to teachers to people who have never made anything before, and the responses were just as varied. People facing tumultuous events in different ways and keen to participate and share creatively. One participant even had a baby! 

My work uses materials to subvert the narrative in different ways. Homemade lenses and filters, paper, real flora and fauna, liquid lenses, food and waste are incorporated into the films via projection, filter layers, and ‘Living Slides’; as if the materials of the film tell their own story. Much like in Stan Brakhage’s work, once-living nonhuman things are pushed under the celluloid skin of the narrative in what I call ‘analogue uncanny’. I explore film as a physical object made by a physical set of processes – a dark chamber focusing and bending light in different ways and hitting a sensor, a chemical reaction on celluloid, video magnets aligning, pixels blinking. I want to make work that grows, breathes and decays, spooling, splicing and looping, that lives beyond the edges of the sprockets or the limits of the screen surface and that wears its hybrid mutant monstrosity openly.

Custom and antique lenses have been used throughout the history of cinema to produce different effects, The Lighthouse (2019) being the most recent and vivid example. Many old lenses are rehoused for cinematography. My own experiments with lenses and optics (not just from cameras but projectors, microscopes, magic lanterns as well as multi-lens stereo, quadro photography etc) has been a fascinating process. It accelerated exponentially in lockdown and has given me new insights into the physical behaviour of light and how we experience it. There’s something really addictive about seeing the world come into focus from a new ‘eye’. As if the light is being filtered through time. The science fiction writer Bob Shaw has this idea of ‘slow glass’ through which light travels so slowly it holds memories, records, evidence. I like to think lenses do too. This project bends and bounces light through these obsolete objects in different ways, making them see again. Every time you go out with a new lens you recalibrate your viewpoint and frame – seeing new things you wouldn’t notice normally, seeing the same things in a different way. Different objects come into focus. The light bends, shifts and flares differently. I like to think that by changing the “eye” of the camera it adds new perspectives and ways of seeing the world, all montaged together into a mutant choir of viewpoints. 

 

Eyes of Time, 2020, Sapphire Goss. Research project, various formats.

 

Aside from the mechanical, film needs at least one body to make it, and one body to witness it. An audience of bodies together or alone. Bodies tensed or slumped. Mouth dry, eyes wet, heart pounding, fingers clenched, shoulders shaking, teeth bared, lips parted, breath held or gasping, nerves twitching in a sympathetic dance. Synapses firing and endorphins flooding. Bodies beginning and bodies ending, reaching out to touch connecting across the void between our islands through light and sound and time.

With film we can briefly escape the corporeal and embody the eye/ear as with a dream, transported through the luminous portal, travelling without moving. Transfixed by flickers, sucked in by primeval instincts. It feels good to shake off the weight of having a body, or being aware of ourselves existing in relation to other people. I think about a quote from Jeanne Mammen, the Weimar era painter:

‘I have always wanted to be just a pair of eyes, walking through the world unseen, only to be able to see others. Unfortunately, one was seen.’

The experience of corporeality is not universal, we do not all inhabit bodies that are treated equally in the world. Black/PoC bodies, disabled bodies, trans bodies, intersex bodies, women’s bodies and other marginalised bodies are not treated equally or experienced in the same way. My preoccupation with chimeras could be an expression of my experience of chronic illnesses (Ankylosing Spondylitis, Uveitis), and an accompanying view of reality that is fragmented, dis-located, dis-placed, disjointed, inhabiting many spheres simultaneously. The experience has slowly knocked me off my axis as if I was layered onto my own life. Here, in the womb of darkness, lit by vivid shadows, hearing sonorous soundscapes, we can be unseen. And safe. Escaping the grotesque, messy, distasteful physical corporeality, decaying and sprouting and shedding. 

Lockdown has us trapped like anchorites. We are alone in dark rooms filled with luminous virtual visions, a sensory deprivation experience where details have become more heightened and simultaneously merge into one mass. Black reflective screens perforate one reality with another in the dimness of the room, creating pools of bright pixels, overstimulating and overwhelming. Hyperconnectivity fragments us from our flesh into abstraction, dislocated from physical form except our eyes, disembodied from everything except our primal instincts, rewards and threats, fear and anger. The cyber eye blinks back and interacts. We lose ourselves in these inverted worlds until bodily needs slowly drag you back into yourself.

In Interior, each person has also answered questions about the experience which, when read alongside the film, offer a fascinating account of a very strange time. The people who took part are from diverse backgrounds around the world and offer a multifaceted depiction of a unique event. Through the film and the interviews we can travel around the world and see a journey through different interiors at a specific point in time, limbs branching out to create a document of lives and different ways of experiencing and embodying the world. 

 

Liquid Nothing, 2019-20, Sapphire Goss

 

Perhaps films don’t need a body to complete them on second thoughts. There is an interesting tradition in Thailand for spirit cinemas, where worshippers pay for films to be played in makeshift outdoor screens as an offering to the spirits and deities or sponsored as part of funeral rites (Richard MacDonald, 2017). Cinema as a shrine to ghosts; stories and memories broadcasting to spirits in the dark; reveries echoing through the ether. What happens to us if we are completely disembodied from each other and can’t reach out? We need stories, stories to forget ourselves and stories to remember. Stories playing in the dark to hushed audiences, to a person in a room, to nobody. Stories are the cells that make up our world, they make our lives tangible and give them meaning. 

I often work alone but never fail to be invigorated and inspired by collaboration and community. A group of strangers from different countries who have never met each other came together to make Interior. It has been interesting to see how coherently the seemingly disparate parts hang together as a whole in a way I hadn’t predicted. Images recur from the expected (domestic: furniture, plants etc) to the more surprising (hag stones, portholes, hands). There are a range of styles from single shot tableaux to rhythmic montage, dreamy abstraction to 3D rendered scenes. Interior spans the intimate to the domestic to the sociopolitical – a hybrid-form film and a complex and polymorphous document of 2020 and the lives of people experiencing these unprecedented events. 

I aim to make films that are hybrid in materials and senses, and hybrid in their multiple viewpoints: whether that’s using footage gathered from multiple participants or using experimental materiality in the making or presentation. These pluralistic anti-auteurist methods represent the erosion of the boundaries, forms and structures that no longer serve us. By using experimental and collaborative techniques to create work made by many hands from the perspective of many eyes and unexpected materials, we can disrupt outdated thinking and flesh out multifaceted narratives. What does it mean to walk a mile in another’s shoes; see through their eyes? I believe that we can find new ways of telling stories, find different ways of seeing the world, find new hope and new solutions, if we begin to break out of the islands of ourselves to create something new as a community.

 

Thanks to all of the Interior exquisite corpse artists and the hybrid participatory editing help of Jules Allen, Ellie Hawkins, Emily Clark and Matt James Healy.

 


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