Birmingham-based independent curator, Aly Grimes, is currently a student on the CuratorLab course at Konstfack University in Stockholm. Following a group visit to the Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) in Northern Norway and this year entitled ‘I Taste the Future’, she interviewed one of the contributing artists, Ann Lislegaard about her new commission for the biennial.
The Norwegian-born, Copenhagen-based artist Lislegaard here discusses science fiction, the future, and her new commission, ‘Maelstrømmen’, for the Lofoten International Arts Festival (LIAF).
Your new commission for LIAF 2017, entitled Maelstrømmen, directly anchors itself in Lofoten both physically – exhibited in an old wood workshop in the fishing village of Henningsvaer – and also through its subject matter, taking Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’ (1841) as its point of departure. It surprised me to learn that many Norwegians have never been to the Lofoten archipelago. As a native Norwegian, had you ever visited these islands?
I lived in Nordland close to Lofoten for part of my childhood and early school years. Norland is situated north of the polar circle and it is the most dramatic landscape I have ever experienced. I remember how I used go to and from school in total darkness for months – the sun never rose above the horizon line. Everything would be covered in snow and occasionally the sky would be lit by northern lights. It was intriguing and mysterious, like being on another planet. Also the maelstrom, which I used to watch from the top of a mountain. It looked like a big swirling organism, pulling and whirling, and I would speculate on what it would mean to spiral downwards, down to the bottom of the ocean. Maybe my interest in science fiction is rooted in those experiences. Later I would read Edgar Allen Poe’s short story A Decent into the Maelstrom. How he deals with the place is for sure science fiction.
Did you find that the natural surroundings of Lofoten provided inspiration for your commission? The setting itself is almost supernatural!
It was very emotional for me to be back after so many years and very inspiring. Everything there is in a state of constant change. In that sense the place feels almost animated or supernatural, like a parallel world filled with forces that affect your mind and body
This year’s biennial title, ‘I Taste the Future’, utilises science fiction as a tool for imagining futures, meanwhile attempting to engage with the past, present and future of Henningsvaer. With such an emphasis on concepts of the future and links with science fiction within your practice, this year’s theme must have really excited you?
Yes, I was happy to be invited and proud to provide inspiration for the title of the festival – it’s a rewriting of a text I wrote for Pollen Messages an earlier work of mine
Were you able to select the space in which your artwork was exhibited and if so what was your reasoning for exhibiting in the old Trevarefabrikken, the festival’s ‘startpunkt’?
I liked the complexity; walking through the factory I could still sense a dormant history in the smells, textures, dust and old heavy machines that crowded the spaces. Trevarefabrikken is connected to a time when nature was primarily seen as a place to mine, cut or harvest for our economic gain. Not much has changed today. For all our technical advances we still haven’t solved our relationship to the environment. This theme somehow informed my work, so it was interesting to project directly onto the dirty walls of the space. The projection enhanced the shadows of machinery and made them flicker. Suddenly the history of the place became part of the animated image.
How did the relationship between yourself and the curators, Heidi Ballet and Milena Hoegsberg, play out? Did they offer you free reign with your commission? Were you invited to respond without curatorial intervention?
I was interested in making a work about the whirlpool as sort of a contact zone where a kinship with life in the ocean could occur. It would be an ‘Area X’; a place where you could find new sensations and unknown organisms speaking in an alien language. We discussed this while I was working on the animation and got feedback from both Heidi and Milena.
I very much enjoyed the presentation of Maelstrømmen, in particular the separation of the two screens and speakers embedded amongst the building’s various original artefacts. The exhibition guide explains that ‘in Poe’s story, the narrator gets caught in the maelstrom and his whirl towards it becomes a kind of time travel as he passes objects from different eras’. The setting of your artwork amongst these historic objects certainly reflects this image and the near total darkness of the room sucks the viewer into the heart of the vortex. Was this your intention?
The machinery, the smell of dust and cod liver oil, everything there fascinated me from the very beginning. I had the intention of activating the space around the animation all through the work process. I hoped it would engage the history of the building and as well as what was outside, the history of the whirlpool, tides and oceanic creatures but it was only at the very end, after trying out several different versions, that I figured out how to install the piece.
Maelstrømmen manifests a 3D animation principally featuring a cyborg’s head that communicates in scores of fragmented and glitching sentences. The cyborg’s face switches from one screen to the other intermittently while the video is occasionally intercepted by clips of the swirling limbs of sea creatures. We hear “… a large octopus moved towards me in a blur of tentacles. Its body barely visible as it took on the colour and texture of whatever it p-p-passed …” I am interested to know how you arrived at the decision to present the work as a two channel video? It almost appears like the cyborg is having a conversation with itself?
I wanted to create a sense of a double and more fluid identity, both visually and on the soundtrack. The cyborg’s speech is filled with stutters, glitches and wrong sayings. Occasionally there might even be a sense of the speaking happening as a sort of transmission, that the words are flowing through it, coming from one or many external sources. I was working with this all through the process, testing different ways of presenting the animation. It turned out that presenting it as a double projection worked the best in Trevarefabrikken.
The colour intensity of the video starkly contrasts with the surrounding darkness of the room. The distinct greens and blues conjure imagery of the Aurora Borealis found on postcards in gift shops all around the islands but also more subtly, in the colour scheme of LIAF 2017. Was this a deliberate or perhaps subconscious decision?
I wanted to place the character in a twilight zone with no distinct light source, like moonshine but without a moon. The character retells the story in a sort of non-space, it adds to the confusion of where she is and where she has been. The octopus is a hybrid image and more saturated. When I filmed the octopus it was like a performance; it was whirling its tentacles like an actor enacting the cogs and wheels of a strange machine. I have never seen anything like it. Also an octopus has eight tentacles, eight brains, three hearts and each one of these can work independently as well as collaboratively on very difficult tasks. It can change form and colour in seconds, disguising itself to blend in with whatever area it moves through. The colours of the underwater scenes were defined by the water particles that drift through the images creating patterns that suggest a sort of communication or unknown language.
Positioned in the same room as Fabrizio Terranova’s film, Donna Haraway: Story Telling, one could draw a fair few visual comparisons to the work which is also punctuated with snippets of pulsating jelly fish floating around the screen. Is Haraway of interest to you?
Donna Haraway proposes the term ‘Staying with the trouble’, a story of all species as full of dying as living, endings as beginnings. The purpose of her theory is not reconciliation or restoration but the possibilities of partial recuperation and getting on together. I find this very inspiring. Haraway proposes not only a speculative fabulation or a speculative feminism, like the science fiction writers Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy and Joanna Ross but also speculations about how to “… reworld, reimagine, relive, and reconnect with each other, in multispecies well-being.”
Whilst Terranova’s work is a biographic piece about the life and work of Haraway and her approach to storytelling, Maelstrømmen is a self-portrait. How did you arrive at the decision to represent yourself, the narrator, as a cyborg?
I wanted to include an autobiographical element. Since I grew up in Nordland I wanted to make a direct connection to the maelstrom. Also when you create a 3D figure, they tend to look young. Making a face look more experienced, with wrinkles and wear and tear, is hard to do digitally. So it made sense to start from a 3D rendering of my own image. That said, I’m not the only person squeezed into this body. If I have the chance I might reconstruct and remodel her again for new purposes – I like that thought.
Your earlier work, Pollen Messages (2016), also depicts a 3D animated cyborg. Is this also an autobiographical work?
Pollen Messages was the first time I found a way to build a cyborg with human features. It’s not me though, but an animator named Zara. She also came out looking a lot younger than we wanted.
3D animation seems to play an integral part of your work. What brought you to this media and are you continuing to expand your practice with the use of other digital technology such as virtual reality?
I would love to work with virtual reality. Many of my works have dealt with places. It would be fantastic to be able to venture into these strange alternative worlds using virtual reality.
Much of your work references other science fiction films and writing such as Kawamata Chiaki’s novel ‘Death’ and Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’. This is also the case with your work, ‘Shadows of Tomorrow’ (2016), which borrows vocabulary from the film and re-records it through a human beatboxer. When creating a new commission, does your creative process begin by sourcing sci-fi material or do you begin by addressing your own personal concerns?
It’s hard to separate artistic and personal concerns. Like Malstrømmen a lot of my other works have dealt with the idea of a new or alien language that enables a different way of communicating. Being female and a female artist, I have always felt that I had to invent a language, both personally and artistically, since I didn’t feel like I had a language available I could use. So this theme has been present in my works since my early sound pieces.
Shadows of Tomorrow is about searching for a new language to make ‘contact’. Trying to identify rhythms and vibrations in the body as a sort of pattern recognition, a communication. I often refer to it as a space opera – it’s abstract and science fiction like – but I see this work as connected to earlier sound works of mine, like Corner Piece and I-YOU-LATER-THERE that take place in a mundane domestic setting and appear more autobiographical.
Ballet and Hoegsberg’s curatorial brief for this year’s LIAF was to imagine life 150 years from now. As your work so often addresses the future, was this a challenge for you and is this something you think you have achieved with Maelstrømmen?
Well, the cyborg might live in the future, 150 years from now. Maybe she’ll be found by a group of young artist animators and sent out on new adventures. Hmmm … that is probably not likely to happen. Anyhow, I’m happy that the work proposes a different way of interacting with and seeing the environment. Many other people are coming up with ideas and proposals for this, both within the arts, and critically, like Haraway. The Brazilian president Michel Temer just opened up a large part of the Amazon for the mining and the logging industry. It means that a pristine nature reserve the size of Germany will more than likely be destroyed. In Denmark 10 wolves in Jutland are causing endless debate. And people are putting poison out to kill the few beautiful sea eagles that nest on the countryside. We really have to solve our problematic relationship to our surroundings. It becomes more urgent by the day. Hopefully art can contribute to this as well.