Catherine Elwes

Interview with Catherine Elwes, Camberwell, London: 24/07/00

C.M-A: What were the main factors which influenced your initial decision to work with video in a fine art context?

C.E: I think initially it was an impatience with painting. I was a narrative painter- not a very good one, and it took me a very long time to say something very simple, (or so it seemed to me) and I needed a more direct and immediate way of communicating the stories that were in my head and that I was trying to get out. I was not much good at painting- I found it very unwieldy, but I was much better at drawing. For me the difference between film and video was like the difference between painting and drawing.

What put me off about film, principally, was the fact that I couldn’t see it. I remember shooting a super 8 movie- I had rather a tall subject, and turned the camera on its side, imagining that it was like a stills camera and I would be able to tip the thing upright afterwards. But when it all came out, and she was on her side, I was very upset. I had not understood the technology at all. I also didn’t like the waiting. Waiting for three weeks, and then it came back blue or upside down. The quality of the image was quite beautiful but I needed something I could see. Video was a bit like having a pencil with a rubber. I could put something down, and if I didn’t like it I could just rub it out. To me it was much closer to drawing and that’s why I felt an affinity with it.

C.M-A: What about the relationship of video to TV?

C.E: I didn’t think much about television. I know other people did. Video was supposedly setting itself up in opposition to TV, the kind of counter-cultural initiative that people like Stuart Marshal and David Hall were theorising about. I had absorbed a lot of theories they had. Theories that had come down from “Structural-Materialist” film. But really I don’t think I was having such a big argument with television.

C.M-A: Some women video artists have said they were attracted to the medium because it hadn’t got a history of being dominated by male artists- was this an attraction for you?
C.E: In theory yes. And for the same reasons I had started working in performance before working with video. I started working with performance first, and then incorporated video into the performance, then abandoned performance and worked exclusively on tape.

The only difficulty was that having abandoned the history of art, you took on the history of film. You were suddenly doing battle with the history of film and television. It’s a different set of problems, but just as difficult a set of problems. The things that Laura Mulvey talked about- the gaze of the camera, whether it was possible to appropriate the gaze, and what you needed to do. How you convinced your audience that it was a female sensibility that was being expressed.

C.M-A: What aspects of the video medium were most important to you in relation to your work?

C.E: It was possible to have a very private confrontation with your own image through the video medium, which didn’t involve anybody else. You didn’t need a crew. You could just set it up in your bedroom, and work with it. That’s where its tied up with autobiography- video seems to be the ideal medium for that.

Peggy Gale has said that there’s something anthropormorphic about a monitor. Its an object that gives out light, and therefore invites a kind of one-to-one intimacy with the viewer. It relates to the medium of truth, whereas film seems to relate more to the medium of the imagination.

C.M-A: Television somehow being more about information.

C.E: It has that sense of “if it’s on video, it must be true”.

C.M-A: One equates television with documentary and news. The TV presents or re-presents the “authentic”. Perhaps it’s something to do with notions of “live” TV. So in terms of your work, the important qualities of video were it’s intimacy, spontaneity- and the authenticity?

C.E: This is odd really because very little of my work did that. My tapes weren’t confessional but had much more to do with the body. Much more to do with a kind of self-examination- about the outside. Thinking about it- the close-up was very important. Close-ups of hands, the close-up of a leg, close-up of the breast. Getting as close as you can possibly get. The person who did this wonderfully was Nan Hoover. The body as landscape. I didn’t want to get as close as that, because then it became abstract again. There’s a moment somewhere between abstraction…if you’re say, 5 ft away from your subject , there isn’t a sense of intimacy, there’s a sense that you’re looking at an image of somebody. If you’re more or less at the scale that the breast piece was, it slides between being an image and actually being there, doesn’t it? The irony being of course that you can never touch it. It seems to require that the camera is an exact distance from the object- probably about 5 or 6 inches-to get that sense that you’re “there but not there”, and therefore the possibility of touching what you can’t touch.

C.M-A: What about issues of access? You’ve already mentioned the idea that you could work with the portapack in the privacy of your bedroom, and this obviously affected the kind of work you could make.

C.E: Well initially, the equipment was pretty heavy. There was this photo of Bill Viola with his portapack: “Man with Machine in the Desert” for Chott-el-Djerid . It used to make me laugh because I realised that I wouldn’t be able to carry that for 3 seconds. Spring was partly about that-oddly enough. I was following this girl down a path, and I was running with a bloody great portapack which I actually couldn’t really carry. The reason I had to stop such a lot was because I couldn’t carry it. So that there was a physical limitation to what I could do.

C.M-A: Have issues of accessibility affected the look and/or the content of your work?

C.E: I’ve thought about that, and I don’t think so. Somehow or other, I’ve always managed to get access to what I needed. I was one of the lucky people who got jobs after art school and through those jobs I had access to cameras and access to editing. The older pieces were absolute straight performances to camera- the piece lasted as long as the tape did. I was only able in those early tapes to make two or three edits, if that, in something that maybe lasted half an hour. Suddenly when U-matic editing came along, what it did for me personally anyway, was to unleash a natural weakness for narrative. Whereas the earlier work had related much more to performance, once I was able to edit more accurately I found myself more able to make narratives. Although there weren’t any words in them, nonetheless I was aware of building narratives.

C.M-A: What is the relationship between editing and narrative?

C.E: I think its got something to do with being able to change the point of view. Being able to juxtapose images that were collected from different places. You can imagine, as you say, standing up and just telling a story like Hannah O’Shea’s Litany for Women Artists – a speech, or a chant. Tina Keene once recited a poem called Waiting – all about a woman’s life, which is told in terms of waiting for things to happen in her life- always waiting. So that might seem a more conventional narrative possibility which came from performance, which has it roots in theatre. But once you could edit – almost making surreal pieces. If you go back to Eisenstein- the juxtaposition- montage.

C.M-A: If you hadn’t been able to edit, would you have continued to make performance-based tapes?

C.E: I think so. I think the best ones I did always were a bit like that. I think the ones that were best were performances to camera. Its not really until now that I’ve used video as a narrative.

C.M-A: How important were the formal “inherent properties” of video?

C.E: The quality of the image was something that I regretted all the time.

C.M-A: But you were obviously willing to put up with it- why?

C.E: Because I would have had to give up on all the reasons that I was drawn to video in the first place, which were more important to me.
I didn’t really like the harsh image that it gave, to be honest. I was always glad to soften it if that was possible. I was always hysterical about the resolution because everything looked like cotton wool, especially when it went down a couple of generations. I didn’t really like that.

C.M-A: But you stuck with it because…

C.E: Well, because it was still one of the most flexible mediums that I could work with. It’s a medium that suits women because they have lots of “little talents”. I was trying to list all the little talents that I had that somehow or other I could pull together on videotape. I could do make-up, so I did a make-up piece; I could use my voice, so I could speak or sing; I seemed to have a kind of feel for pacing- which I didn’t know I had, which is a slightly sort of musical skill; I liked narratives, so eventually I started to use narrative; and also an ability to frame things – my years and years of drawing were actually a good training for making tape because you pay a lot of attention to what you have inside the frame and you think very hard about how wide the frame is- you’re having to think in several dimensions at once about how one frame is going to relate to the next frame. So a formal training in painting and drawing, I think, was a wonderful training for video. It seemed that it was possible to pull together all the things that I’d learned along the way.

C.M-A: How significant were these formal qualities to you in choosing to work with video initially? Are they still important to you?

C.E: The quality of the image?

C.M-A: The formal qualities that are particular to video- the instantaneousness of it, the small-scale, low key qualities of the camera/recorder that allows for intimacy.

C.E: This is particularly important now because the work is much more based on the stories people tell me. I’ve had to be able to go somewhere and be with someone for a period of time (sometimes short, sometimes long) and in order to get the testaments that I needed. Working with Roger (Hourdin), I realised that it took me a long time to get him to tell me the truth about anything. If you spend some time with someone, and they tell you the same story over and over again, the story evolves gradually until they tell you something quite different.. You’ve got to be able to shoot a great deal of material if you are working with an individual who you are trying to get information out of them. (This sounds very aggressive, but..)

C.M-A: Can you tell me about the political dimension to your work with video, the fact that we watch your work, we become aware of the significance of the fact that the “author” is female.

C.E: In the early pieces it was obvious that it was me, because I was pointing the camera at myself. and always staring into the camera- “castrating the gaze”…This is ME- I made it, its about ME!! It was all a bit forced, but you underlined it because you were afraid you’d be misunderstood. That wasn’t the nature of the times, it was just that my thinking was quite raw. But now, its quite different, that need isn’t there in quite the same way. However, what it does is it gets translated into a piece being about an interrogation- I now cast myself as an interrogator, and the answers always implicate me in some way. Perhaps less in the current piece, but in the previous piece where I was asking questions about my father all the time. But people got cross with that piece because they say I didn’t say enough about my father as a father. But the work is much more about me searching for something. Unlike TV documentaries, I always try to declare an interest at the beginning, and to declare myself. That’s why at the beginning of the Liaison Officer there’s a long sequence of my hands going through my father’s belongings before they were all dispersed- looking for clues and saying why I’m doing this.

C.M-A: How did the technical limitations affect the way you worked, and the kind of work that you made?

C.E: The problem that I’ve had with a lot of the recording I’ve done over the last few years has been that because I was asking the questions, and not been able to concentrate on the framing of the image. I’d take it home afterwards and think “God, that frame was bad.” That was a limitation-that I hadn’t been able to think. I didn’t really know how to plan for that. I think that’s why its better to spend a lot of time with someone. It was only after shooting quite a lot with Roger that I finally realised that I had to move the camera off his face, because you just read it in such a specific way. It draws attention away from what he’s saying. If you’re looking at someone’s face you are looking at all of the other signals. You’re looking at the way they look, how old they are. The spectacle of the visual detracts from the words. So that’s why we ended up just shooting his hands.

C.M-A: But you wouldn’t ever do something without pictures. You wouldn’t ever simply make a sound piece.

C.E: You mean like Blue ? Yes- either that, or do a piece which is predominantly sound. I’m finding in this piece, that I’m no longer afraid of the blank screen. I’ve always felt that I had to entertain people, and therefore had to fill the screen with glorious, dazzling images- the iridescent images that you get with video. Now I don’t feel I have to do that so much.

C.M-A: Originally were you after increasingly dazzling images?

C.E: I was certainly looking for interesting angles on things. So for example, with the breast tape (There is a Myth, 1984). I spent a long time looking at the image of the mother, and the mother suckling her baby, and every one of them looked like the image of the Madonna and her child- too sentimental and obvious. It took me a long time to realise that the answer was to look at the breast that was not being fed on. Look at the other one, and therefore not do the obvious thing. Finding a perspective that was different- finding an angle, a point of view, a frame that was different. It doesn’t necessarily mean wacky- turning the camera upside-down and do “youth TV”- throw it in the air..

C.M-A: Who were you inspired by?

C.E: Viola. I saw Chott-el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat,) (1979) in 1983. I loved the fact that it was very slow, meditative and astonishingly beautiful. The other thing that I liked about it was that all the effects in it were natural. It was heat rising from the desert, snow storms- everything that interfered with the picture was a natural phenomenon. I loved that- I thought it was absolutely wonderful.

So that all the effects in With Child (1983) are “woman made”. For example when the woman is trudging through the undergrowth, the sound of the crunching is just crisps being crushed in my hand. Special effects on the cheap.

C.M-A: Were there any particular women artists?

C.E: Nan Hoover. Because of her relationship with the body. Performance artists like Carolee Schneeman were also important- her Naked Action Lecture (1968) at the ICA that I never saw, but read about, which was a strip-tease she performed whilst giving an academic lecture about her work. The other one was This is a Television Receiver (1976) because it was a piece that deconstructed television forever.

C.M-A: But you weren’t really interested in television though, were you?

C.E: The reason that David’s piece was important, as with Peter Gidal in film, was that it taught me that the medium was not transparent.- it can’t be taken for granted. There are certain meanings which are inherent in the medium, and that you have to work either with them or against them.

C.M-A: Were there particular lessons that you drew from Hall’s piece?

C.E: What’s good about David’s pieces is that although he said the same sorts of things as Peter Gidal, but he made it entertaining. He stole something from TV- he stole a television personality, so that the initial hit of interest and recognition- the frisson of the famous was something that he harnessed. It worked better because, at the time Richard Baker was famous. When I showed this in Canada, I had to say to them to imagine the most familiar face to you reading the news. The piece ought to be re-made for every place that its shown in.

Almost Out (1984) by Jane Parker was also important to me.

C.M-A: Why?

C.E: Because it made me understand that duration had another function. Gidal said that duration would deconstruct narrative, would make us aware of the way in which narrative is constructed by depriving us of it. Jane’s piece made me realise that whilst deconstructing one piece, you could be simultaneously constructing another. At first there is this horrendous juxtaposition of a wasted, middle-aged woman against her beautiful naked daughter. When I first saw it I was so upset. My mother was still alive at the time and I couldn’t understand how Jane could have subjected her mother to this terrible humiliation. But I stuck with the piece, because I couldn’t walk out as the artist was there. But very gradually, the meaning shifted. At first the artist appeared to be the positive image, because she was young and desirable, and the mother was the negative image because she was wasted, and no longer had any “value” as a woman. But I began to warm to this naked middle-aged woman, because I stopped looking at her, and started listening to her. After a while there was nothing new to look at- there was no provocation. Similarly, Jane doesn’t provoke, she just speaks too.

Then they switch places- the mother is warm, wonderful. Jane is peevish, irritating, ungrateful, small-minded,- a bitter-and-twisted little girl, and you hate her by the end of it.. So the duration completely reversed the reading of those two, and it takes 90 minutes. The duration is key.

That’s one of the things that I’m trying to do with this new piece. I don’t know whether they will listen- that’s the problem with this installation which is different from Jane’s tape, which is a sit-down-and-watch experience. It wouldn’t have worked if you could have left. That’s why I don’t think that this piece is going to work- because you can get up and leave. I’m going to offer 40 minutes of uninterrupted speaking.

C.M-A: A story?

C.E: He’s going to speak about what he did.

C.M-A: So that’s something particular to video. This idea of the “one-to-one” with the screen. The individual viewer being addressed by the screen.

C.E: Unlike on television, where everything is “atomised’. You don’t hear anybody speak for more than about 3 seconds. You watch a documentary in which they trot out 25 veterans. In the end you don’t know who anybody is. What you are actually being fed are the undeclared views of the producers, and also their opinion of what the audience’s attention span is. What I should really do is force people into the room to listen, but I can’t be quite that fascistic about it. My guess is that they will listen to about 3 minutes maximum, which is still more than 3 seconds.

C.M-A: Would you rather have the guy in the gallery, telling the story “live” ?

C.E: Yes- Stuart Brisley did pieces like that.

C.M-A: Are you in a sense going back to performance?

C.E: Maybe. I’m very intrigued about the problem of how to keep someone there who has the freedom to choose whether or not to leave.

C.M-A: In the old days you probably would have tried to mesmerise them with the images.

C.E: Yes. But I’m not doing that any more- just giving them the words and the story with a very minimal arrangement of images.