From November 2018 to January 2019 and with the kind support of Senatsverwaltung für Kultur und Europa, CNC DICRéAM, Bureau des arts plastiques, Elise Florenty and Marcel Türkowsky (b. 1978, Bordeaux & East Berlin) have presented in their solo exhibition Abyss, do you copy? at Grimmuseum in Berlin works, material, video and sound installations related to their more recent project developed on the island of Lemnos in Greece. The outcome of the project will be the film Sand im Getriebe that will premiere in 2019 (Michigan Films).
On the occasion of the exhibition the artists delve into different layers of histories, times and realities that this Greek island contains. Through the 3-channel video installation Vultural virtual landscapes and real footage shape a diffracted geography of the territory. Lemnos is here the set for one of the first mythical and political exiles in history, narrated by Sophocles, where the injured archer Filoktitis was left behind with trickery, while the argonauts lead by Ulysses continued their journey to Troy.
Nowadays Lemnos, a mostly militarized island with a small number of inhabitants and a rabbit plague, has been chosen by a young Athenian as the place for a self-imposed exile to re-start his life as consequence of the economic crises that hits Greece since 2008.
A dystopic future takes place on Lemnos as well. Gamers can fight as avatars in the meticulous 3D reconstruction of the island, theatre of the video-game Arma 3: in 2035, in the aftermath of the crisis, Greece has been excluded from Europe and searched new partners in Middle East and Asia. Fights between the West, the East, and a local resistance group take place as part of a global war on the microcosm of a desert and hostile island.
The dark speculative presentation of Lemnos in Vultural is counterweighted in the exhibition by voices and sounds from the island: a 45 minutes radio-show introduces the current socio-political context of Greece as seen from the point of view of a local radio-speaker, connoisseur of the tradition of Rebetiko music as well as member of a group of inhabitants developing an egalitarian community on the island. Rebetiko becomes here a filter and amplifier to address current political global and local issues. The reactivation from the past of this popular music genre fits together with the social need for a new start in Greece based on autonomous actions and gatherings of people taking place without help or any specific attention from the institutions.
Multiple representations and narrations insist on the same piece of land and its reality cannot be rendered as a stable compound of elements, but rather as a matter subject to transformations driven by different forces, some of them still invisible, virtual or waiting to be reactivated.
In the interview I discuss with Elise Florenty and Marcel Türkowsky these issues taking their recent exhibition as a point of departure, and focusing on their interest for unconventional modes of narrations, and on their nomadic ways to develop film projects.
Mario Margani: The main piece in your exhibition is a new 3-channel video installation titled Vultural which reminds me of your current film project Sand im Getriebe that you discuss with the art historian Paul Sztulman in the last chapter of your publication “One Head Too Many”(2017, BOM DIA books). These two projects have a lot in common: the setting is the island Lemnos, the same main character is wandering around the island, and in both you mingle in a specific way your footage with the aesthetic of the survival war video-game Arma 3, which is set on the same island. What is the relation between the two works?
Elise Florenty & Marcel Türkowsky: The film will focus more on the protagonist’s stream of consciousness. One will get to know his actual life, the reasons for his exile from turbulent Athens to the arid island Lemnos, and the kind of hallucinations or reveries he has there, shifting between various imaginary figures. His drive for transformation stems from his urge to leave the capitalist apparatus behind and to try to live in a different way, quasi-solitary, almost in survival mode. His concerns meet the ones of the anti-hero Filoktitis, a wounded argonaut who was slyly abandoned on the island Lemnos during the Trojan war, and the ones of the international avatars of the video-game Arma 3, also set on Lemnos, whose scenario curiously takes its roots from the recent Greek economic crisis.
The 3-channel video installation was made for the context of an exhibition, when we were invited to show our work in progress. It’s quite short, perfectly looped, with no beginning and no end. At one point, each screen is linked to one specific level of representation, either mythical, real, or virtual, using different formats, Super 8, HDV or CGI footage but soon those boundaries get blurred, elements start to “deterritorialize” themselves, spreading to other screens. The result is a perturbing fabric of a territory in constant metamorphosis, oscillating between a décor and a proper environment, where one cannot distinguish the virtual from the real anymore. The main character doesn’t narrate but only takes the role of a sleeper. The spectator enters into his dreams and experiences a swift spinning of threatening signs. There is no linear narrative here to grasp but rather the construction of an allegory showing how the mythical figure of the vulture echoes the financial vultures that are waiting for the economical death of Greece and the virtual vultures that are waiting for the death of reality.
Mario Margani: You have used this virtual representation of Lemnos – as taken from the video-game Arma 3 – as a visualization of the hallucinated status of the character. It is a very realistic and precise replica of the island that overlaps the real footage that you have shot on the island. It indeed happens that one loses track and exchanges a real image for the representation of it.
Elise Florenty & Marcel Türkowsky: One cannot really know if his hallucinations are visions of the future or memories from the past. Many of the existing military and urban landscapes on the island are in ruins, and as the video-game’s fictional plot is set in 2035, one could get the feeling that the future war has already happened, so that the action takes place after 2035. The ambivalence created by the manipulation of timezones is intriguing. We always try to avoid a progressive time-line…
Mario Margani: This makes me think that in your book you refer to Heiner Müller’s “Philoktet” as one of your sources for your project. There is a conversation from 1993 between Alexander Kluge and Heiner Müller in which they discuss among other things about ghosts coming from the past and ghosts coming from the future, in connection to German history, between First, Second World War and Cold War.
Elise Florenty & Marcel Türkowsky: For Müller the mission of theatre is to unbury the part of future that has been silenced with the massacre of utopias. Art must open the door through which ghosts can come to deliver that part of future that could not unfold. We believe very much in this approach. Of course Müller’s ideas have a lot to do with the repression he personally suffered during the post-war and cold war eras. But he refers to all the ghosts of all the unrealized and failed revolutions, not only the ones of the 20th century. Revolutions are going to fail, nevertheless there is the hope that their unrealized futures will come out again and again. After one revolution will always come another one. There is a principle of hopefulness in any hopelessness, that we can also find in Pasolini‘s writings.
Mario Margani: To go back to the previous question, one detail that has to do with the technical way of shooting struck me in your installation. Thinking back to it, passages from the video-game are mixing up with some of the real footage. Layers of virtual reality and recorded reality overlap. I guess it is partly because of the way the camera is following the character, the way it moves with mechanical movements almost disturbing, being stunningly similar to the one of video-games, not fluid but abrupt.
Elise Florenty & Marcel Türkowsky: We were wondering how one could imitate the parcours and movements of an avatar, in first person view or third person view. We worked with Vagelis, a great camera operator from Thessaloniki, who now lives in Athens. He brought a kind of steady cam setup called “Ronin”, in Japanese it means “drifter or wanderer, a masterless samurai”. It’s a handheld three-axis camera gimbal making the camera operator having no direct connexion with the camera. He is just maneuvering two handles giving digital informations to four motors that accordingly move. The sensitivity of the motors can be varied. We proposed a very high sensitivity setting, where a small handle movement would create a very harsh motor movement. Suddenly we had a very frightening image-motion. He told us that no cameraman is used to receive such an instruction from a director. Directors usually want the opposite, something very fluid, smooth and transparent, where the resulting footage doesn’t give any idea of the use of a machine.
Mario Margani: As a spectator you always have different ways of seeing things depending on the expectation: a movie, a video-game, a video work for an art-exhibition, or a documentary film. You can expect different solutions about how the reality will be represented. If you watch a video-game these abrupt movements can be perfectly normal and plausible. Video-games and specifically the survival-mode video-games are very spread and popular in the younger generations. They spend hours in front of these video-games sharing their experiences mainly online, or watching others playing online. Probably some of them develop a different perception of movement and even a specific habit of eye-movement. Maybe I’m exaggerating this now. But after a while this has probably influences on the reality effects the players would need in order to perceive a representation as realistic and plausible, doesn’t matter which media we’re talking about. Maybe in a not so far future it won’t be so realistic to watch a fluid representation, where the deployment of cameras and other machines is concealed through different methods, edits and devices, and where it would be more realistic to have a mechanical, scattered and abrupt vision.
Elise Florenty & Marcel Türkowsky: Sure, our perception of what is realistic will change the more we will be in a daily connexion with the machines vision apparatus. Films are not just made for a frontal single-screen experience anymore. Spectators already can experience stories through a 360 degree space. VR works very well when it’s about going beyond the limits of the body, like jumping out of an airplane for example. But that doesn’t mean that the space for contemplation will disappear. There is a branch of video-games that try to be very realistic, going very far in the melancholic contemplative approach. You can ride a horse in slow motion surrounded by an ephemeral cloud of light and dust phenomena for many minutes. We’re pointing this out in our next film. Towards the end, there is a shift in the narrative and the players are not using their weapons anymore. They prefer to face the sunset. Suddenly Thai, Russian and German players stop making war and just express their empathy for the virtual landscape fading into the night. Anyways, there will be probably more and more experimentations that blur the opposition between cinema and video-gaming provoking either ecstatic-passivity or hyper-activity.
Lemnos is a very calm island. It has a small population although it’s quite big. To feel the silence while on the road is very striking, especially when knowing that there are constantly international players virtually roaming the same place to play war. This “parallel experience” opens up many questions that we are addressing with the installation and the upcoming film.
Mario Margani: And the guy who self-exiled from Athens and moved to Lemnos had the idea to re-enact Filoktitis story on his own?
Elise Florenty & Marcel Türkowsky: We met him by chance and he got interested in what we were doing. He already knew the myth but the more he was staying with us during our research the more he started to identify with Filoktitis’ story of betrayal. We were not looking for an embodiment of Filoktitis at all, we were rather afraid to go into this direction, but the encounter with him brought the project into unexpected territories.
What is interesting with the figure of Filoktitis is that one first believes that he is a victim, because he is left alone on this island by force and trickery. But at a certain point Filoktitis has the chance to go back to society, as Ulysses returns ten years later to ask him to join again the war. Indeed the Oracle told Ulysses that the Trojan war could not end without Filoktitis’ bow. But Filoktitis refuses to follow Ulysses. His victim position shifts into a resistance position and we believe this is what was striking for our protagonist and why he started to identify himself with it. And for the anecdote, he also has a bow. It seems to be part of the Greek popular culture that young men possess bows and know how to use them. Once he arrived on the island, he even started to hunt rabbits with his bow. But it turned out to be frightening for the people of the village and at some point he had to stop using it.
He’s very lonely and keeps moving between different spots where he stays for a given time. He has a small apartment, which is actually a shed with no electricity, then he has a sort of Japanese tea-house close by the village and a little summer camp close to a beach. There are also a few caves where he hangs out from time to time. Without really knowing, as Paul Sztulman already pointed out, he leads a very nomadic lifestyle within a very small geography. He has his rituals and moves from one place to another in a cycle of one or two weeks or even seasons. Each time he’s experiencing a form of new beginning: reinstalling, rearranging and repairing the different spaces. He is not a shepherd that herds his goats around. He doesn’t generate a function nor a product out of this. It’s just his way to respond to the crisis. It’s a very ambiguous and existential situation, because he suffers a lot too.
That brings us to what Donna Haraway calls the “second birth”. The second birth after you have been killed or after having gone through a deep crisis. She borrows this idea from Sartre and we believe also from Deleuze‘s “Desert Islands”. They all say that the second birth is more important than the first one, because it tells you something about your condition. Our protagonist seems to go through an always renewed second birth. This is somehow what is also happening in video-games. The whole idea of taking a role of an avatar implies that you are re-enacting an experience over and over again. As long as you bring some empathy, adrenaline comes along, and you can push the limits of all kind of situations to their maximum, until death, knowing that you can always resurrect, as many times as you want.
Mario Margani: In the last room of the exhibition, you decided to have a projection of red light on a Greek inscription painted in black on the wall (meaning “Don’t Rush”), and the on-going sound from the recording of a radio show, playing Rebetiko music and discussing different topics. The installation is titled Don’t Rush (Material). What led you to decide to bring this part of the Greek popular culture into your exhibition?
Elise Florenty & Marcel Türkowsky: We wanted to create a counterpoint to the loud and hectic 3-channel video installation by making another voice heard, that would talk about both personal and politico-historical topics related to Lemnos in particular and Greece in general, caught between Europe and Asia Minor. Something more spontaneous, joyful and affirmative. The installation takes the form of a space where you can sit, hear and read a subtitled sound transmission of a radio show, that has no beginning and no end. The first song of the radio show was replayed at the end and the speaker even says “we’ve already played this song… but it’s ok to be in a loop”. We took this opportunity to create here too a perfect loop, to stress the feeling of a perpetual restart.
Eventually this material will turn into a documentary film as we’ve actually filmed the entire radio show, portraying the speaker and some of his friends that join him in the studio. Their resistance like presence and melancholia unfold out of a dark but heartwarming subterranean summer night mood.
Mario Margani: Did you initiate this radio show, or did it happen by itself and you just documented it?
Elise Florenty & Marcel Türkowsky: It was instructed but not scripted. Giannis, who belongs to a young greek anarchist movement, is one of the few people we got very close to in these three years going back and forth between Berlin and Lemnos. We knew that he was working in pirate radio for some time, until he had to quit. We wanted to know more about his practice as a radio-maker and his knowledge and love for Rebetiko, a Greek music style from the beginning of the 20th century that young and old generations still play and listen to on Lemnos. So we asked him if he could do a radio show in which he had a “carte blanche” to select songs and the topics he would like to address. He was totally into it and through an amazing narrative, he interweaves his personal life with issues of migration flow, political resistances, ghetto life, the position of the outcast, love and drugs, all this within the heritage of the Rebetiko music. What strikes us is that he constantly conjures the ghosts that come back to us through the music, as if singing out of the past. One has to recall them and can do this through music! He had his own way to address this whole set of questions that we are addressing in our work in general, but doing this in a very simple and immediate way. So Rebetiko is looked at not only as an appropriation of a tradition, but as something that has an actual agency, and that can be re-activated. It used to be a famous music movement, but still it remained marginal, even though it often gets compared with the beginnings of Blues, Hip Hop or Punk. With making this radio show we understood how Europe is missing its complexities and richness, especially in supposedly peripheral areas.
Mario Margani: As also the curator Katrin Mundt points out in your monograph, at least in your two previous films Conversation with a Cactus (2017), and The Sun Experiment (Ether Echoes) (2013/14) as well as in Vultural and in your next film, states of hallucination and dream play an important role and bring together different narrative layers including new languages, “doppelgängers”, and other subjectivities. Another feature connecting probably all your works and films is the approach you have in the research and production, since you always spend many months or even years in regions, countries, and social contexts you are interested in, unfolding your own nomadic web between focal points. Thanks to this approach you find a way to tune in with the spirit of the places, with possible characters, with marginal myths as well as with popular narration. When this takes place, situations and events in the day-to-day experience offer themselves to you as bridges between past, present and future. In Conversation with a Cactus you introduce the story of the scientist Ken Hashimoto and his research about getting a cactus to ‘speak’ as a witness for judicial purposes, which is a sort of marginal but popular mythology.
Elise Florenty & Marcel Türkowsky: At first the Western World took his studies very seriously. The BBC even filmed Mr. Hashimoto and his wife practicing a set of electronic devices connected to cactus plants at the foot of a Buddhist temple, a strange mix between new technology and old traditions. But later the experiment was turned into a farce, especially in the Japanese media. Anyways, there is something very fascinating in the basic attempt of Hashimoto trying to communicate with the Other, not with the dead, but here with the nonhuman, silent or quasi dormant matter, a cactus plant. We decided to film a young japanese woman making an inquiry about it. The more she seems to get involved, the more she ventures into a dark thick enigma. In an atmosphere of silenced politics, she meets different non-human agents like string puppets, dancing diodes and mutating insects from Fukushima reverberating with apocalyptic onomatopoeia-like descriptions. The attempt to make a concrete statement on the Hashimoto experiment intentionally fails to give space for another kind of rich intuitive communion with nature.
The film is mostly shot by night, and the young woman is insomniac, even in her dreams. As you just mentioned, the state of insomnia, or let’s say the state in which the consciousness is not fully oriented, is very central in our work. We often feature an isolated character who is hallucinating or day-dreaming, becoming a kind of medium that enters into a state of vigilance, anonymous and impersonal, but able to connect with a virtual collective.
This main character is at first presented in his/her daily anecdotical routine within a precise socio-political context, and he/she slowly sets out on a more transcendental quest. For this, he/she must lose some of his/her personal attributes to access to new social forces of any kind. Let’s recall here Deleuze and Guattari talking about Kafka and his becoming K, an impersonal agency: the more solitary a person could be, the more he/she could “plug” him/herself into the collective. We strongly believe that to achieve such an “asubjective” connexion, one has to be pushed by a kind of death drive that leads to a becoming automaton, and through which a person acquires a kind of unconscious grace, close to that of a sleep walker. Most of our films are trying to formulate this drive, maybe more explicitly our short film Shadow-Machine (2016) and our upcoming Sand im Getriebe.
Nevertheless there is a moment when the character comes back to him/herself, to a more conscious individual level, resisting to the automaton state and the undifferentiated unity with the world. At this moment, mostly towards the end of the films, he/she has eye contact with the spectator (“regard-caméra”), as if connecting again with the shore of Otherness, staging at that point a very important “distancing effect”, critical attitude. It is exactly in this fragile momentum between total immersion and sudden rupture that we like to plunge the spectator into.
Whenmaking our films, we ourselves venture through quite delirious experimentations and temporal dilatations, seeking for encounters that could trigger extraordinary chain reactions. No script, no big film production money to stay as close as possible to the material reality of the world and its possible fictional becomings, in a precarious but affirmative way.
Mario Margani: How and when did you start to make works together, coming from two different backgrounds, the one of sound for Marcel, and the cinema for Elise?
Elise Florenty & Marcel Türkowsky: We made a first short video together in 2006. It’s about a child memory of Marcel in East Berlin with the very Beckettian title, Berlin’s last tape. But we seriously started collaborating in 2010. We wandered and filmed in North Mississippi, to rediscover W. Faulkner‘s fictional Yoknapatawpha county through the kaleidoscopic eyes of his young idiot character Benjy. Since then we continued to work on film projects in different geographies, Brazil and Mexico, Korea and Japan, Ukraine and Greece.
Marcel comes from the field of music ethnomusicology and philosophy, and later focused on sonic narratives in visual and performance art. He always had an attraction regarding existential point of views, and how to envisage the question of utopia in the contemporary and in time itself, especially looking at the rhythms of autonomy in subterranean cultures.
Elise studied cinema theory parallel to fine arts. Her first approach to cinema was mostly conceptually driven and focused on questioning narrative structures and film production rules. Her early video works unfold streams of consciousness and personnel or collective mechanisms of resistance in which the power of the false, through the parade, the carnival and other forms of fabulation, becomes “a memory, a legend, a monster”.
Our different focuses blended into our common interest for storytelling, with an attention for the multiplicity of point of view, poetics of resistance and sensorial experience. It has become a vast journey of imaginative thinking and practice, in search of new ways of grasping our relation to the world.
Mario Margani: Often in your work the bridge with the otherness is built through elements with non-human features: the cactus, the parrot, or even electrons and now, the virtual reality of the video-game. This helps to reach a different dimension where characters leave their subjectivity back and are driven by different forces. But it can become also a reflection about the way of experiencing otherness and the world itself today, in the age of disembodiment.
Elise Florenty & Marcel Türkowsky: In our film The Sun Experiment (Ether Echoes) a story by Andrei Platonov is told. It’s about the tragic life of electrons, about how they are descending from the sun and dying on their way to the earth by eating up each other, creating an ether channel made out of electron’s corpses. This channel leads to vessels in which more and more accumulated matter might resurrect them again – and allegorically resurrect all the people who have sacrificed themselves for the sparkles of the revolution. We discovered this story right after returning from Brazil where we were working on Andrade‘s “Cannibalist Manifesto” and Viveiros de Castro‘s Perspectivism. This act of cannibalisation / resurrection also to be found in Russian cosmist science fiction literature was very exciting.
So from the beginning on, we’ve assembled a cosmology of multiple subjectivities involving animal, vegetal or inorganic point of views. This implies to reconsider the hierarchic and presumed power relations that are at stake, overcoming the conventions of the human-centered narration.
We believe the seeking for these new narratives is caused by the state of emergency the world is in. The ways of living and dying together on a damaged earth, across people, species and matter are truly at stake. As Walter Benjamin once wrote, there was a time when nature – from stones to planets – was speaking to men, kind of answering to their existential questions. Nature was the common ground for men to assign their condition. But with 500 years of capitalism & Co, nature has become indifferent to the fate of men. It has become mute to them. Or men have lost the ability to listen or simply to question it. Now should be the moment to re-learn how to connect with nature but it seems that humanity – especially its corporate tumors – is rather seeking for a replacement or imitation of it. As if sphere 2 will overcome sphere 1… And how much body will the sphere 2 have? Will it just be a surface?! The body, when it is driven into a social laboratory, is the only matter for resistance. Only the body can resist to any kind of dictatorship of the abstraction and concept order/s. Whatever humanity would do to get rid of its body, its body will always reemerge and fight back.
Mario Margani: What are you working on right now?
Elise Florenty & Marcel Türkowsky: We are currently in the last stage of editing Sand im Getriebe. After this, we have two film projects we want to develop further, which will take quite some time. One is concerning the agency of the body in relation to invisible matter, it’s a montage of collective gatherings and rituals that we have documented over the last 6 years in different geographies, parallel to working on our films. The other is a response to our experience we made in Japan filming Conversation with a Cactus, where Mexico appears as a fantasized territory. Here we are developing a film related to various strange events that occurred in one of the worlds biggest cactus forests, located in Puebla state. What we already know is that there will be an overlapping of narratives and timezones, where japanese ceramists, mexican theater actors and a german botanist from the early 20th century meet various ghost representations of an Aztec codex. This 4 cardinal-trees codex gets activated during their collective dreams and initiates them to the vegetal power of this thorny and quasi-forbidden zone, lusted for its marketable, hallucinatory and rebellious agencies.