Video, Performance and Choreography, Molly Palmer, in conversation with Bryony White
Bryony: Could you tell me some more about the role of performance in your practice?
Molly: Performance seems to have crept into my practice very gradually and unconsciously as a by-product of other things I’ve been working towards. Images, words, objects or music have always come about quite naturally as different ways to track down a feeling. In the early stages of a project all I know is that there are these things that need to be made so I can inhabit the feeling and make it visible – a lot of the time I have no idea where it’s going in terms of a final outcome and I think that uncertainty is very necessary to the process. The relationships and connections between different components of a piece shift constantly as they develop, producing multiple meanings and possibilities. After a while this can become a bit overwhelming as I start to accumulate an excess of elements that seem important but don’t have a fixed position or function. At this point it feels good to start acting things out – directing, performing, filming and editing is sometimes the only way to contain something so nebulous and sort of limitless. Bringing things together in lots of improvised combinations can produce weird and unexpected results, which I find very exciting and energising. Because of this I’ve started to use performance more intentionally within the work, but I still feel like it’s something I don’t fully understand – and that state of not understanding is something I really enjoy.
B: Your work, especially The Fade, feels rigorously choreographed; could you tell me some more about how you go about notating or choreographing movement in your practice?
M: Choreography within the work is something else that has come about gradually in the process of combining lots of different activities. Prime Number was my first return to video-making after six years of painting practice during which I was also making music as a hobby and playing in bands. The choreography in that piece has similar influences to the ones that fed into my painting practice – things like iconography, sci-fi novels, old TV series, films and video games. The shots worked compositionally, symbolically and in series like my paintings and the storyboard looked almost like a comic strip. The soundtrack was very song-based, which meant there was a rhythmic drive behind the imagery and a kind of re-enactment of the lyrics and dialogue in the movements of the character.
Planning shoots for The Fade was much less straightforward and less controlled in that it grew out of an emotionally difficult event, which I tried to process in lots of different ways. One of these was a series of drawings that loosely became set designs for different parts of the film. Another was a cathartic act, of throwing a broken mirror off a bridge, which I wanted to represent without actually re-enacting it. This led to the animation of disembodied arms around the mirror and to making the spinning box in the curtained room, which transforms the mirror from a bad luck omen into a talisman or power symbol. In this scene the soundtrack of tuba samples grew from the motion of the conjuring arms on the central screen and went on to influence the movements of the animated arms on the side screens.
I don’t always notate or storyboard choreography – my approach really varies and depends on the interplay between lots of different factors. I usually make some kind of plan but quite often I won’t know until I’m actually filming what movements will work, and sometimes the direction of these is quite uncomfortable as what I want is somehow awkward and unnatural. It depends on so many things, like the atmosphere in the studio or my mood and the performers’ mood, even the weather! There’s something kind of mysterious about that process – there are times when it feels like it won’t amount to anything, or the opposite, that there is just too much there, but on some level I have faith in my instincts and the best things happen when I just sort of go with it.
B: The way you edit your films seems to have choreographic, or rhythmic qualities, could you tell me some more about choreography and film/video editing and how they interrelate in your practice?
M: I really love editing, and find it a very inspiring and productive part of the film making process. There’s an amazing fluidity and malleability to moving footage around, cutting and altering it in digital formats. As the edit takes shape it gathers momentum and drives the work forward.
Part of this comes from the rhythm of the shots, and their relation to the soundtrack or dialogue. Sometimes the soundtrack comes first and I fit the footage around it, other times I’ll do a rough cut of the footage based on the script and then construct a soundtrack around it using samples and recordings, which then influence the final rhythm of the edit. Things seem to have a place and a pattern that just feels right.
I want the videos to offer an altered reality that is clearly artificial and unstable but also very immersive, so I often layer footage and warp its scale or timing. Editing is also central to the final content and meaning of the work. Sometimes the process of performing an idea can become quite longwinded and indulgent, which is interesting at the time! But bringing all the footage together means you see much more clearly where the real substance of the piece is situated, and what it’s various components actually amount to.
I’m beginning to work more experimentally with this process, allowing the edit to shape the choreography and editing alongside the production process so that the two can influence and feed each other. I also like the idea that the editing process can produce multiple outcomes which don’t necessary need to feel ‘complete’ – that something unfinished or constantly re-finished could open up new dimensions in the material.
B: You often use performers in your films, do you script their lines, or is it more open to the moment?
M: I don’t necessarily set out to write a script for every piece, and mostly write in an inconclusive, fragmentary way as things occur to me day to day. This accumulates as scribbled paragraphs in various sketchbooks, word documents, notes on my phone and emails I send myself to re-read. Sometimes when I’m looking through these particular passages will jump out and become significant to other things I’m working on, and this is usually the beginning of a script. Eventually I end up with a couple of pages of dialogue that I want to try out. I then storyboard the dialogue in quite a sketchy and chaotic way to plan the shoot and try to communicate what I want from the performance visually.
I work with people who aren’t professional actors – usually friends or colleagues whose natural accents and inflections I like. Often they aren’t particularly confident or comfortable in front of a camera and I like the way that shyness or awkwardness can alter the dialogue. It’s impossible to anticipate which parts of the script will work and so performing the dialogue is very intuitive and reactive. It often changes dramatically in the course of a shoot and then again in the edit. During both processes the words and their meanings are constantly in flux, which is exciting and often generates new ideas.
B: Where lies the origins/the urge to use performance and choreography as a method or mode in your work?
M: Movement has always been so intriguing to me as a means of communicating. We’re all carrying around this interior world that is constantly changing in relation to the things around us, but which stays hidden from other people. Gestures and body language make some of this visible, so in a way they seem like a borderland between the physical world and more abstract or intangible things, a form in which they can be expressed and understood.
On the other hand we can never truly see ourselves as we appear from the outside, or in relation to the world around us. All we know is how it feels to move and exist within it. At the moment I’m interested in exploring those movements in more depth. To see what happens when you isolate actions that usually occur unconsciously, or gestures that act as an extension of speech – what changes when you put them in sequence, accentuate, repeat or interrupt them.
Choreographing gestures and actions within the video work has allowed me to make connections between sounds and images, spaces and objects, but actual dance is something that I’m only just starting to play with. Part of my attraction to it is my complete ineptness and the awkwardness that comes with not knowing or understanding it. I’ve been kind of blown away by people like Michael Clarke, Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch, whose work I only discovered over the past couple of years. Dance seems to have this ability to access feelings that remain abstract and unfixed – that are deeply and directly understood in different ways by each viewer but are also experienced collectively.
It affects and transports me in a similar way that music does, and though I have absolutely no idea what my own experiments with choreography will lead to, it seems like a natural development of things that have been present in my work for a while.
B: The use of objects in your film and video practice seem to function as props and archaeological ruins, as well as both sculptures and mysterious objects imbued with unknown power. Can you tell us more about the use of objects within your practice?
M: A lot of the objects in my work come about from an initial misinterpretation of function, or a re-appropriation of something familiar. When things become isolated from their everyday context they can become quite alien, and this fluctuating function can produce new meanings, especially when objects are activated within the narrative.
The objects that appear in my films come from a pretty broad range of influences. At the moment these include Postmodern interior design and art deco objects, 1950s electrical components, Mayan architecture, Czech Cubism, commercial window displays, sculptural film props in the work of directors like Fritz Lang and Alejandro Jodorowsky, and improvised props for budget TV productions such as the 1984 adaptation of John Masefield’s Box of Delights. I really like how the specificity and strangeness of an object can make the artifice of a film more apparent but heighten its reality and my suspension of disbelief at the same time.
I keep folders full of photocopies from books and magazines and go through phases of drawing from these and from museum exhibitions on things like archeology, anthropology, theology, astronomy and science. I hang and re-hang these drawings and images on my studio, kitchen and bedroom walls so that they become part of my everyday environment. It feels like they gradually break down and sort of mulch together, allowing me to construct a composite culture within my work.
When the objects I make get involved in my films I like their function to remain as obscure and ambiguous as possible. I work on props, paintings and sculptures at the same time as writing and making soundtracks. They accumulate layers of meaning by their proximity to each other in the studio, influencing and inhabiting the narrative as it develops. I made sculptural props for Origins of the Island as symbolic objects for the enactment of a ritual but The Fade was the first piece in which they became as important as the performers and sets themselves. They were somehow able to switch registers and also began to act as a conduit between scenes, which is something I’m very excited about in the pieces I’m working on now.
At the moment I’m interested in pushing the fluidity of the objects within the films. Video gives you a pretty limitless set of possibilities in some ways – I like the fact that a fairly modest hand-made object can be constantly in flux depending on how it is framed and that it doesn’t need to observe normal rules of gravity or material strength. It can become a monumental structure, an architectural space, an item of clothing or jewelry, even a body part… I also like how temporal and inconsistent its existence is – you can make something incredibly polished and solid that only appears for a few seconds, while an unstable, ephemeral object can become more solid and permanent in its documentation.
Molly Palmer graduated from Goldsmiths’ Fine Art and Contemporary Critical Studies program in 2007 and has continued to live and work in London. Recent exhibitions, residencies and screenings include Enclave, London, Tou Scene (Stavangar, Norway), Kala Arts Institute (Berkeley, CA), South London Gallery and Whitechapel Gallery, London. She was awarded Arts Council England’s International Development Grant for her first solo show at Torna Istanbul last summer and is currently studying under a Leverhulme Scholarship at Royal Academy Schools.
(All images still take from The Fade and Prime Number)
(All images courtesy of the artist)