Exploding Appendix Avant-Garde Art and Research Group: February/March Brighton ProgrammeJanuary 30, 2019
Daniel & Clara: An Interview in 12 Parts. Part 11: Short filmsFebruary 27, 2019
Blackness pours like treacle from my veins, and oozes across my decomposing skin like sap congealing into the bark of a tree. The sweet scent of sweat, blood and bile hangs in the air as my body melds with the dirt. The petrification of my soul submits me to the motilities of darkness, as if the night sky has eaten my vision and left me blind. Consumed in the shadows, I persist. Petrification becomes purification, and this death becomes an ascetic duty. Here I succumb to the black sun.
In this tenth part of our interview with Daniel & Clara, Bradley Tuck talks with them about their film Black Sun. Along the way they discuss Black Paintings, the Sol Niger in alchemy, the cinema space and gender.
The trailer for Black Sun can be viewed here.
Artists Daniel Fawcett & Clara Pais have been collaborating since 2011 on moving image work, performance and photography. Since meeting they have worked exclusively together seeing themselves as two halves of a single artist. Alongside their work as artists they also publish their own magazine Film Panic. Throughout 2018 they will be collaborating extensively with Exploding Appendix as resident artists and, alongside this interview, will be collaborating on events, screenings and film projects.
BRADLEY: The process of getting to see your 2017 film Black Sun is itself an interesting experience. Quite different from all the other films I have been watching as we conduct this interview. Watching Black Sun, for me, was like being inducted into a shadowy and secretive organisation. The film could not be sent to me and I could not watch it at home on my computer. In fact, I had to come out and visit you in order to see it. You organised my viewing of the film, and I have only got my notes to go on for the interview. There is no possibility for me to re-watch it. One of the reasons for this tight and restrictive screening of the film seems to come from the unique nature of the film. It is at once quite different from most cinema, and yet also, essentially cinematic. This film is made for cinema, but it is not cinema as we know it. This is in part due to the often long periods with no images on the screen. If this wasn’t presented in the cinema one could easily experience it akin to a radio play or an audio book, but this isn’t a radio play, nor an audio book. It is cinema! In the cinema the long periods of a black screen become something immersive and intense. This is a piece of cinema that attempts to transform the cinema space by persistently throwing it into darkness. So this is a very special and unique piece of cinema, and a potentially challenging and provocative approach to filmmaking. What drew you to approach making a film in this way?
DANIEL & CLARA: This is the final film in a series that we are now calling our Alchemical films and like the other films of that period this film draws upon dreams, mythology, ritual, Jungian psychology and magic. It relates in many ways to the other films of that time in that it has a mythological or fairytale type narrative, but whereas the other films are strongly visual and use a painterly image, Black Sun differs in that there are long sections of the film where there are no on screen images. We arrived here through several paths: one is our ongoing experimentations with the nature of cinema, thinking about what cinema is and where its limits are; second is our interest in darkness and the role it has in the development of the human experience, thinking about what our relationship to it was historically and how that differs to now.
We both love darkness, we love being out in the middle of the countryside on a moonless night when everything is pitch black, in this situation you can for a short while glimpse how this might have felt to our ancestors before the invention of the electric light. We also love sitting in a dark room listening to audio recordings and music and letting these create images within our minds. There is something incredibly fertile about the dark but you can’t just switch off the light and expect visions to come, you need to sink into it, surrender to it and face it fully. That experience of being out in the middle of nowhere at night can really help you understand how in mythology darkness is associated with death and the underworld. If you have ever slept outside and waited for the sun to rise you’ll know what we mean, it is really a deep experience of time, a kind of ordeal in a way and a way of understanding the bigger cycles of time and transformation.
So with this film we wanted to create an experience that took the viewer on a journey into the dark, a brief glimpse of what the role of darkness is for us as humans and maybe a reminder of some essential experience we may have lost contact with. We also wanted to create a truly cinematic experience that didn’t rely on on-screen images, we want the film to be activated in the mind of the viewer. Each person will experience a different film, the sounds they hear in the dark will activate something different for every one who sees it, the film in a way is projected not onto the screen for all to see but into the mind for each to see. Each viewer will have a first person experience and we hope with this work to confront them with themselves, in the same way that as creators when we make art we try to face ourselves.
BRADLEY: It is tempting to describe this film as the mirror opposite of In Search of the Exile. This isn’t exactly true, but there is something similar, yet inverted, in both. In Search of the Exile is an intense film that takes us on a journey where the visuals are so bright and intense it feels like we, ourselves, are going on a journey. It is not simply us, watching someone else, it is us, in the cinema, going somewhere. It is all very immersive. Black Sun is similar, but rather than having bright colours flood the screen, we have the absence of the image. There is nothing. Blackness.
Black Sun is equally an intense and immersive experience. At one point during my viewing of the film I noticed that I was slightly moving my feet up and down. I then noticed that not only were they moving, but they were moving in time to the footsteps that I could hear from the film’s sound-scape. There is some sense in which I was there, going through it, living it. Afterwards I felt like I have been through something. At one level it felt like an endurance. I was looking for ages at a black screen. I am not sure if this would change if we watched it in a cinema. This is a film made for cinema and should be watched in a cinema, but due to limitations we were watching it in a different space. In our viewing, that act of watching blackness was intense. I wanted to close my eyes and just listen to the sounds, but I didn’t know when the next image would appear on the screen. So there was a kind of need to be visually alert. There was a kind of visual obligation that the film seemed to demand even when no visuals were provided. It was like being a guard, required to stare watchfully into darkness in case an intruder emerges. Watching…. watching… watching the darkness. It would be quite different if a radio play were projected in the cinema. I could close my eyes and listen, but this was something different. This required a kind of visual engagement with the darkness.
As with In Search of the Exile, the story came from the sound. Whilst there were moments where visuals appeared, the main narrative is carried by the sound. The fact that this is a fairytale/fantasy also adds to the sense of this being a journey. It is the story of a journey, and the strange way we encounter the journey means we kind of feel like we have been on one too. At one level this is a story rich in visuals, yet we don’t see them. It feels like it could be a coherent story, but we are, at some level, deprived. It is not always easy to make out what is going on or what we are hearing. There is something frustrating and disorientating about the sounds we hear. We generally know something about the world we are in and the journey we are going on, but we rely on our sense of sound, and something seems missing.
So this is both immersive and endurance cinema. It really pushes its audience. How have other people reacted to the film, and how do you anticipate people reacting to it?
DANIEL & CLARA: So far very few people have seen the film, even though it was finished a while ago we have been waiting for the right situation to present it, as you point out the film is specifically made for a cinema space and to experience it fully it needs to be seen projected on a big screen and watched from start to finish. It has to be immersive and the context in which it is shown is essential to understanding it, you could say that it is an installation for a cinema space. One obstacle we are facing is that we are not making online screeners for this film, which is currently the way you submit work to festivals and programmers, so for interested programmers we are having to organise private screenings, this slows us down a bit and as this is a bit unconventional people are reluctant to make the commitment to preview it in this way. But it feels right to do it like this, this film really is a kind of ritual so the whole process must become a ritual of sorts, even organising the screenings.
We do now have some screenings of it coming up in 2019 and we are really looking forward to finding out how people react to it. From the few friends and programmers we’ve given preview screenings to so far the response has been fantastic. Fascinatingly pretty much everyone has spoken of the physical effects it has had on them, one friend spoke about how it had moments where it made him feel physically cold and then other moments where he could feel heat.
Being in the dark listening, and waiting for the brief glimpses of images that you feel may or may not come does create a tension, an awareness of waiting and also a feeling of being out of control, out of the comfort zone of how narrative films normally function. For us there is an anxiety to this, staring into the dark blankness waiting for something but you’re not sure what, in that moment your attention is heightened, you become very aware of your body, your ears and eyes. We find this to be a very rewarding and fascinating experience, to move through tension and difficulty to a heightened awareness of the sensations of one’s body, the flow of thoughts and a deeper understanding of how we experience the world. We’ve always been interested in exploring aspects of this in our previous work but it definitely becomes more of a focus in this film.
Maybe something all the films of the Alchemical series have in common is that they are dealing with difficult psychological states, they are all about the struggle of dealing with inner psychic forces that cannot be ignored, in a way they are about overcoming or moving through difficulties and attempting to not reject the darker aspects of ourselves. They are trying to say yes to life when confronted with the most confounding and bleakest states of our inner being. Black Sun is maybe the film that faces this state most directly.
The black sun is a symbol used in alchemy and hermetic traditions, it is often associated with the first stage in the alchemical process known as the nigredo or blackening, which is a process of breaking down of matter through a kind of death and decomposition. Psychologically we could see this as a state of depression or crisis, where one’s energies turn inward and one is possessed by overwhelming dark feelings of suffering, melancholy, shame, despair, or hopelessness. As hard as it is to deal with these emotions, emotion is a kind of psychic movement creating change from within. These can be seen as mechanisms for drawing our attention to our wounds and initiating some inner process of self-awareness and overhauling, which is a kind of rebirth. The black sun in itself presents a contradiction, it is a source of light but it is dark, its shine is a darkness but it is still a kind of illumination so it is indicating there is something to be seen there, its presence creates an obligation to focus our attention on the unseen.
Black Sun is a film about crisis, about facing despair, depression and hopelessness, it’s not about fixing it but entering it, going through it, facing it and seeing what it is. It is a film about descent, and surrendering to a dark unknowing. It relates to all the great night journeys of the human soul, long dark nights, wastelands and experiences of the underworld, which for us are essentially journeys of deep transformation and integration of opposites.
Of course this film itself is not a real black sun experience, it is art about that experience, it is a ritual in which we can meditate on that part of our existence and hopefully begin to understand how to face it. In our culture there is not much room for the black sun, everything moves very quickly and anything that creates a disruption or a halt is seen as a problem.
BRADLEY: I think this all goes back to something you were saying in our discussion of Sacrificium Intellectus; how there wasn’t enough room for slow, meditative and experiential cinema. Black Sun is like an extreme attempt to rectify this. Black Sun shifts the very conventions of cinema, so that a very different type of cinema becomes possible. It is as if the persistent absence of images transforms the film viewing into a religious ritual. Someone recently commented to me that contemporary art cinema is going through a Post-Lynch phase, that most films experimenting with narrative tend to take their cue from David Lynch. I am not sure if this is true, but if this is true, it would suggest that experimental narrative cinema tends to merge those genre conventions of Hollywood cinema with expressionist and surrealist methods and themes. Black Sun too, seems to mix conventions of genre cinema with avant-garde methods, and whilst there could be said to be interesting overlaps with surrealism (especially the emphasis on dreams and fantasy), Black Sun seems to draw heavily on minimalist and abstract approaches. It is as if you are mixing the conventions of fantasy cinema with Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square. Is this how you would describe it?
DANIEL & CLARA: There are certainly some new and interesting approaches currently taking place in experimental cinema and there does seem to be a renewed interest in experimenting with narrative. David Lynch is definitely one reference point for a lot of filmmakers but more than him specifically we believe that this interest is fuelled by the way that the internet and digital restorations of older films have made available a great variety of work that has for a long time been hard to see. Many underground, experimental and art-house filmmakers have been in a dialogue with narrative and genre cinema since ’30s, Cocteau for example incorporates genre elements into his films. Much of the ’60s New York underground filmmakers such as Warhol, the Kuchar brothers and Jack Smith also blended genre with formal and performative experimentation. You also have people like Jacques Rivette in the ’70s taking the forms of fantasy and mystery films blended with realist approaches and experimental theatre to create his films, so this meeting point between formal experiment and genre is not new but the discovery of these older films by a new generation seems to have given it a renewed interest.
In our own work we take our influences from everywhere, as you know we love equally Hollywood films old and new, art-house, experimental and underground cinema as well as video art and home movies. We are inspired equally by experimental theatre, dance, painting, mythology and literature and all of these things are there in varying degrees.
We did look at Malevich again while researching this film (it happened to be on display in London while we were in pre-production) but we also looked at every artist we could find who had investigated the use of black images, black pigment and black sun symbols, more than Malevich we found inspiration in Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings and also ancient tantric painting. But we should be cautious when talking about these influences and summarising things into categories because it can distract from what the film really is, it’s very easy to say things like a fantasy that meets Malevich but we could just as easily say it’s a structuralist film using fairy tale material or equally a fairy tale film using structuralist techniques.
In order to be honest and accurate we would have to say how we draw upon minimalism, abstraction, structuralism, surrealism, expressionism, fairy tales, religious art, Hollywood, underground, experimental and art-house cinema, cave art, performance art, horror and fantasy, poetry, dance, mime, meditation and so on but the list would become so vast that it probably ceases to be useful. The creative process can be quite mysterious, we know that somehow all these various elements have fed into the work but when we try to work out exactly how, it becomes unclear, the influences seem to disintegrate.
While we were finishing the sound design of the film, we also happened to visit the Blake Room at Tate Britain which displays some drawings and paintings by William Blake. The room has a very soft light and some of the oil paintings exhibited there have darkened due to age. Looking at those paintings in that light at first glance you can hardly discern the images, you have to keep looking at the dark space within the frame, waiting for your eyes to adjust, not knowing quite what you expect to see, and then some moments later the images begin to emerge, the painting reveals itself and you can’t un-see it, you can’t return to the moment where the image wasn’t there yet, it now exists in your mind. What was once just dark is now a web of subtle colours and shapes composing a narrative picture. We don’t know if Blake painted these pictures this dark with the intention to create this effect or whether it is just accidental that the materials have darkened, the pictures haven’t yet been restored and it just happens to create this experience. But for us, this was exactly the kind of experience we wanted to create with our film, and actually experiencing it with paintings was amazing.
BRADLEY: Actually, something similar, albeit without the final revelation, happened to me while I was watching your film. In the moments of darkness, I would stare intently at the screen, never 100% sure that something may have faintly appeared. There was an element of doubt. Was I merely watching a black screen, or had something happened? Was there something there? Had some small minutia taken place? At some points I even questioned if I had seen something when the general fizzle of perception had somehow conjured something on the screen. This is the way that the general blackness was playing with my sight. I often think of you both as visual filmmakers. When you talk about your films you often talk about creating images. In the way you discuss your work, images have a kind of primacy. Yet, if we take a look at this film, and all your films in general, we see how important the sound is. In Black Sun and In Search of the Exile, the sound really guides the films. It is the sound that structures our experience and reveals where we are going. So whilst you seem to be exploring the creation of a new visual language, you also could be said to be experimenting with a new auditory language. How do you understand the auditory and its relationship to the visual in this film?
DANIEL & CLARA: In our work sound and images are equally important and have been since the beginning but for some reason we find it easier to speak of the visual, speaking about sound can be harder and often when we do we find ourselves using words usually related to discussing the visual. But in terms of images, which is what we are centrally interested in, these are not just things you see – an image is an impression, it is a visual idea framed or isolated in some fashion, an image can exist equally as something you see with your eyes as well as something that you see in your mind’s eye, these are both images.
We are careful when talking about Black Sun to emphasise that the film uses several kinds of images, it has shots filmed with a camera as well as sections of black or monochromatic fields but at no point in the film is it ever imageless, we could say that there are sections where there is no on-screen images which is useful when attempting to describe it to someone but of course that is not 100% accurate because there are on-screen images for the entire duration, it just happens that some of them are flat fields of black colour. The other point that’s important is that throughout the film we are constantly creating images through sound and by reducing the external visual stimulus we can become aware of the way we ourselves as viewers are participating in the creation of the images, this is something that happens in all film viewing experiences but it is made more apparent here. We are really fascinated by this, the way the viewer participates, how the visual/audio stimuli activate images in the mind. Words do this too, for example if we were to hear or read the word ‘house’ an image appears to us, it will be an image that is personal, partly informed by our culture, the structures of our society and common use of language, and also informed by our personal relationship to the subject. All words have this, combinations of words can shape out that image, feed into and change it. This is so fascinating to us, and in our films we use sounds, images, colour, shape, light, movement, rhythm etc to explore this.
Related to this is the visual/sound dynamic, how what we see and hear relates, our experiments with this are continuous since Savage Witches, working with sound that sometimes fits what you see and sometimes doesn’t, sometimes is in or out of sync, sounds that are natural or symbolic etc. In our Studio Diary Series (100 short films made in 2018) each film becomes amongst other things an experiment with the visual/audio relationship.
We’ve spoken earlier of our general process of shooting and editing the films without any sound and then only beginning the sound once the edit is locked. This probably does in a way give the visual a slight precedence over the sound but then making sound is like making a second film, or the other half of the film, and it is incredible how our understanding and experience of the images change as we build the soundscapes. So the images do come first but then they don’t really exist until we have the soundtrack, they are like inactivated bodies waiting for the spark of life to come into them.
BRADLEY: Because much of the film is in pitch black, the other images that appear take on a heightened significance. In many respects they structure the film. When I describe the film I am tempted to divide it up in relation to the ‘presence’ or ‘absence’ of an image. The majority of ‘images’ that we see appear to be drawn from fantasy and fairy tales. These visuals that I see remind me of childhood stories of Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel entering the woods. In the film, period costumes are worn and the scenes are framed like classical paintings, such as, explicitly, Millais’ Ophelia.
Then there is the animation that appears towards the end of the film. What we witness is moving rectangular boxes on a black screen with a buzzing sound. Taken on its own it would be easy to interpret this as a very abstract formal piece of film experimentation, but in the middle of a narrative film it takes on a heightened significance. It is as if we are actually encountering the black sun. Something is happening, something that defies our comprehension. Maybe this is what it is like to witness an eclipse without knowing what an eclipse is. Of course, the fact it is squares rather than circles suggest a different mystical encounter – almost, maybe, a technological one. I am reminded of the monolith that appears in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both rectangular shapes. Both strangely intense and overwhelming. Both suggest a convergence of the mystical and the technical. In Kubrick’s film we have Ligiti’s Lux Aeterna, a choral piece where the layers of voice produce an intense drone. In yours we hear a buzzing noise, which itself produces a different, but no less intense, drone. In both we are presented with an encounter with something that is beyond us.
At times there seemed to be a deliberate antagonistic slowness to the film. At certain points I wanted to laugh. It was as if I was being presented with the comedy of continually frustrating the audience. From a conventional perspective, the credits seemed too small, sections seemed to go on slightly too long, and on top of all that, there were long periods of complete darkness. For me that has a kind of comic value. I imagined you sadistically smiling as you work out new ways to disrupt and discomfort the audience. Having said that, I don’t think this is mere ‘trolling’ or a throw away prank. Disrupting the audience’s experience enables a deeper experience to become possible. It feels uncomfortable, it might feel mischievous at points, but what it makes possible is a kind of journey or religious experience. As you described it earlier, it is like experiencing a depression. It is an encounter with the darkness.
Two concerns emerge from these thoughts. One asks about the images in the film that aren’t black. How do you understand them and what are their significance for you? The second concerns your relationship to your audience. How do you understand that relationship? Do you see it as antagonistic? Is your relationship to your audience different to that relationship in other film projects?
DANIEL & CLARA: We certainly don’t feel antagonistic towards the viewer, we hope with our work that we are continuously giving everything that we have to offer without holding back. We don’t think of the audience as a single unified thing but as many unique individuals who will each think and feel differently to the same material, gathering from the experience of the art what they can. Our intention is never to impose anything on anyone, we simply follow our personal artistic investigations and do everything we can to find the best forms of expression and push ourselves as far as we can go with each exploration. Each project grows from a particular need to go in a certain creative direction, to experience something that we can envision but which is yet unknown to us. The finished work presents the results to those who are interested, maybe they too can find within it something that is of use in their own journeys. This offering of our work is always done with love and with respect, we feel that many films are made looking down on the audience, seeking to tell us what to think or feel, trying to persuade or sell us something, but personally all we know how to do is offer ourselves and our work and see what happens, this is the same with everything we have ever made.
BRADLEY: I have recently been collaborating with Kai Fiáin. He has been working as both an actor and a director of photography on The Cake Tasting Society, a film project of mine that was filmed over the summer of 2018. He is an amazing, supportive, patient and all round brilliant person to collaborate with. He is also an amazing performer and the central character in Black Sun. Because of this, and because Kai knew that I had seen the film, we started discussing Black Sun during the making of The Cake Tasting Society. One of the topics that came up was whether The Cake Tasting Society or Black Sun could be seen as Queer films. Kai helps run Fringe! Queer Film and Arts Festival, so this topic was relevant in terms of thinking through our film projects in relation to our other projects, exploring possible ways of promoting our films, as well as in terms of thinking through our concerns and preoccupations.
So, are these queer films? This question carries a kind of ambivalence for me. On the one hand, I am sympathetic to a point that you made earlier in the year about how emphasising social issues can distort the terms of funding and exhibition. Because this tends to become a ‘tick-box’ affair, and not out of political urgency or artistic exploration, this can easily, as you say, betray genuine questioning, genuine activism and genuine artistic exploration.
This chimes with a broader political shift that seems to have happened over the last few decades. Earlier in the year I had the pleasure of interviewing the writer, activist and radical queer, Mattilda Bertstein Sycamore. One of the things we discussed was the shift from the radical queer politics of ACT UP, which, faced with the AIDS epidemic and the failure of governments to respond, called for healthcare as a human right, to the more conservative wings of the LGBTIQ movements that have focused on gay marriage, inclusion in the military, more diverse CEOs, consumer empowerment and tougher sentences for hate crimes. Whilst the former pushes for universal access to basic needs and the transformation of the political system, the latter can easily be used to justify the system and promote inclusion within structures of oppression.
One of my concerns is that many of the categories and tests we use to assess queer films can easily depoliticise many important issues, and, in turn, aid this kind of shift. For example, the focus on diverse representation in films does not inherently lead to this, but nor does it challenge it. Diverse representation does not in and of itself say much about the content of our politics. Furthermore, many of the categories and tests used to assess such films tend to presuppose Hollywood conventions. The Bechdel Test presupposes that the film is a talkie (something that many of our films are not) and privileges dialogue. The emphasis on three-dimensional non-stereotypical characters risks privileging Hollywood naturalism over more ‘Brechtian’ or non-naturalistic acting.
So when Kai and I were discussing whether The Cake Tasting Society was queer, one of my concerns was the respect in which such an assertion could reduce the category of ‘queer’ to a mere question of ‘representation’ and depoliticise it.
On the other hand, The Cake Tasting Society is a film made by and starring many people who could in some way be described as ‘queer’. The film plays a lot with gender, and I am personally interested in playfully casting and exploring gender. So on another level, deep down, themes of gender (especially) inform the film. A similar thing can be said about Black Sun, and for Kai and myself, the two films were discussed simultaneously. Black Sun is a film that stars a transman in the role of a woman, or maybe this is some kind of transition story (it is not entirely clear). So we have a very interesting and playful casting and exploration of gender. It could even be seen as taboo. The casting appears to clash with Kai’s self-identification. How did you feel about this casting? How did Kai feel about this casting?
All of this is a convoluted way of asking whether you see Black Sun as a queer film, or even a trans film. If so, in what way?
DANIEL & CLARA: In regards to the casting, for us when working with a performer we cast on creative instinct, we select people for roles based on a feeling rather than body type, gender, age, race etc. For example in The Kingdom Of Shadows, most of the actors are in their twenties and of different nationalities but we have them playing a family unit who are of various ages, a 25 year old playing the grandfather, the actress playing the daughter older than the mother. We never forget that this is theatre and ritual, anyone can play the role of any character or even a thing, there are no reasons why a human can’t play an animal or even an object. In the artifice of our cinema reality is malleable and anything should be possible, so the normal rules of representation become irrelevant.
Kai was cast in Black Sun because we knew he would understand what we were doing with the film and because he shares an interest in the subject matter. We’ve been friends with him for a number of years now and have had many conversations about subjects of religious and spiritual practices, fairy tales, myths, storytelling, all of which relate to this project. So the casting was based on knowing he had these shared interests and that he’d be able to creatively contribute to the process.
As to our own gender identification and sexual orientation, we are two people living and working as a single artist, that artist is neither male nor female but both. We are not gay or straight, not man or woman but both and all unified into a single artist and our work, we believe, is beyond gender or encompassing all possibilities.
We personally wouldn’t classify our work as queer, in a way our films are made for the future, for a time when we no longer require these kinds of labels, we understand that they are important and useful both personally and politically but for us we don’t feel the need to define our work in this way, we try to avoid any label that would hinder the audience confronting the work on its and their own terms. So that is not to say that there isn’t something to gain by looking at our work through a queer lens, to consider how gender is explored throughout our work, but we should leave that for the viewers to reflect upon themselves.