INTERVIEW – Gyres 1-3
Gyres 1-3 could be described as a visual essay that circulates objects and images. How did you come up with the idea of mirroring the movement of thought with that of oceanic currents (gyres)?
The research that led to Gyres 1-3 began when I was awarded a three-year grant from the Swedish Research Council in 2015. My proposal was to explore ways that accidental drift can lead to discovery. The oceanographer who provides the key metaphor for Gyres 1-3 has been mapping the movement of gyres in the Pacific Ocean based on objects that are found on the beach. This includes objects from the 2011 tsunami in Japan. Another case of accidental drift is the use of messages in bottles to understand ocean currents. My grant application included a detailed research plan, but as 2015 unfolded, I began to feel uncomfortable that I had the luxury of a fully-funded project about drift at the same time as so many people were risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean. I went to Lesvos and Symi—places that I had intended to go for my project, but spent most of my time volunteering. Many experiences of accidental drift are embedded in Gyres 1-3.
Your narrative weaves together aspects of your personal life and the materials of your research. Could you comment on the importance of the autobiographical in your work, in your method, and more specifically in Gyres 1-3?
Gyres 1-3 is a first-person narrative composed mostly through conversations with others. It’s a life lived, but with very specific parameters, and a personal way of sifting through materials. As with my previous work, I’m interested in how (scientific) inquiry generates metaphors, questions of categorization, naming or collecting, and how this plays out in our private lives or overlaps with our socio-political contexts.
And I think it’s important to acknowledge where one is coming from. Sometimes in Gyres 1-3 it’s the proximity of one encounter to another that creates pathos or resonance. For example, the kitsch world of the beachcomber’s fair, the thrift shop behind the convention center, would not have felt so charged with meaning if I hadn’t just been at my mother’s funeral. For sure this is my most ‘autobiographical’ work, but as in earlier work I continue to be led by others, while I seek, stumble and try to arrange and rearrange the fragments of my own inquiries.
In this film, you turn both movie image and screen into a light table, reinventing your forms of editing, of bringing images together, especially through effects of transparency and superimposition. What is the origin of this idea and practice, and how did it develop into the specific and sophisticated form it takes in Gyres?
This technique started with my performance The Fortunetellers (2010), which is based on the time I spent on a scientific expedition in the Arctic Ocean on the French schooner (goélette) called Tara. We were drifting in the pack ice and I wanted to make a work that could speak to the feeling of drift: not knowing where we were going, not being in the same place in the pack ice, not knowing when we would break free of the ice but also being in the arctic to collect data to help predict the future of the Arctic.
I wanted to mimic the fortuneteller, turning over images, turning over hands, while also speaking to the passage from light to polar darkness––echoed by the impossible task of depicting a world and describing an expedition, and a region that is constantly in flux.
Gyres 1-3 is filmed in one take. It’s the closest I can get to a live telling, even if I practiced the choreography of image, hand and text for several months.
The transparency and the layering became a visual language for me that I use when it seems appropriate. So when I was imagining how to visualize the gyre, I thought about images coming into the forefront (the square screen) and being pushed down or washed up on a beach, on the shore. I think of the long narrow screen as the shore—a depository. Images and events resurface, are literally pulled out again from the ‘beach screen’, and are often used for a different telling–often with a new significance.
For example, I’m talking to the archeologist about stones on top of stones. She tells me about being a nurse for HIV patients in the 80s and I tell her about volunteering on Lesvos. We end up talking about stones on tombstones. The image on the screen is a drawing of human figures on a stone. I swipe it away but later the image resurfaces, and this time the image is situated and addressed directly: a drawing on a stone from a ‘re-education’ camp in Greece made by the poet Yannis Ritsos.
Ideally, I want the audience to have this feeling of remembering an image, and grafting different associations onto the image when it reappears.
Gyres 1-3 weaves its narratives between destruction and renewal, between the pain of loss and the joy of encounter. Physical encounters between you and the people you have conversations with, thought encounters between objects and ideas, facts and memories, etc. Pain and joy, but sort of cooled down, distantiated, treated without any sentimentalism or emphasis on emotion. How would you explain this bipolar tonality – which resonates strongly with today’s global situation?
Well, on the one hand it’s based on my limitations as a narrator. I find it important to deliver the narration and not to give it to an actor to recite. An actor could probably get more range of emotion or tone in the text. If I try to do that, it sounds pretentious, at least to my ears. So in order to counter this, and still use my voice, I try to be as matter of fact as possible in order to let the text itself, the choice of words, the pauses and the hand swipes, carry the weight of emotion or sentiment.
When I re-watch Gyres 1-3, those pauses often unnerve me, even though I’m the one who put them there. Those pauses are for the viewer to add their thoughts, to fill in the gaps, to draw conclusions, to feel what is unsaid.
In addition, I want to convey through the telling a sense of equivalence. There is no loss, tragedy or object that is treated more significantly than another. We have our personal stories, we relate them to others, they drive how we see and react to the world, we try to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. (This happens quite literally on a Lesvos beach in Gyres 1-3). How do we speak about distance and over distance? How is empathy produced in the process? Those are some questions I hope will circulate.
The title of the film implies that there could be more chapters or narratives coming. Do you intend to develop this research into other works, to continue working with the idea-form of the gyre?
To continue with the idea-form of the gyre, where material washes up on the shore and has another life? If you can imagine a circle drawn with a shaky hand and there are tendrils trailing out from its orbit, that’s how I see my work at the moment. There are several objects and incidents from Gyres 1-3 that I’m now combing through, and the idea-form of the gyre might morph into the gesture of turning something over and over again.
Many aspects of your work align with the tradition of the « essay as form », as Adorno, among others, tried to define it. Would you agree, and if so could you comment on that? Which writers, thinkers, artists would you name as influences or companions to your work?
What I find relevant in Adorno’s “Essay as Form” is the recognition of the essay as an inherently hybrid form. The essay’s capacity to capture elasticity of thought, the meeting point of science and art (the separation of which Adorno laments in his essay) are qualities I appreciate when we speak of the essay-form.
However, in Gyres 1-3, I was trying to push back against the essay. I wanted to compose Gyres in a way that was circular and contained loops within loops. I wanted to avoid editorializing. I wanted to avoid an over articulation of text and image––which I sometimes find stifling in film-essays. In Gyres, I hope I made sufficient space for the audience to develop a relationship to the material on their own terms.
One distinction that has been meaningful for me while making Gyres, is the distinction that the American art critic and poet David Antin made between ‘story’ and ‘narrative.’ In one of Antin’s ‘talk poems’ called “The Noise of Time”, Antin associates ‘story’ with plot, and transformation–happening in a logical form. A narrative, in Antin’s words, “is a representation of the confrontation of somebody who wants something with the threat or promise of a transformation that he or she struggles to bring about or prevent or both.”