Interview with Elizabeth Milton
Your practice deeply investigates different characters in terms of identity and emotional authenticity. When you hire amateur actors or different participants to enact personas, to what extent of direction is given?
I am interested in the power dynamics between directors and performers. In the case of Portraits, 2007, I worked with a professionally trained theatre actor. I provided her with a mass of information to draw from when developing her representation of my family members (gestures, vocal idiosyncrasies, clothing and basic biographical information). However, I was interested in how the actor would translate this information and what kind of gaps would exist between her performative interpretation of these characters and my own memory of these now, deceased people. I never directed the actor within the performance itself (in terms of preparing a script, giving feedback on how to pose the body). I was more interested in how the actor would build the character on her own and how she would translate my memories into her own “portrait” of each family member. In particular, I was interested in a perpetual shifting between an inaccuracy or failure of representation and moments when then actor was hauntingly “correct” in her immersion into the “double”. In this sense, the actor’s improvisational choices disrupted my own ability to be entirely immersed in the fiction of our interactions and revealed the artifice at the center of the performance. This is an approach that has continued to run throughout many of my video works. Participants individually interpret their characters.
What is the difference between an authentic moment vs. a reenactment? What constitutes an authentic moment when participants inhabit a different character? How do you think the authenticity comes alive when participants are enacting specific characters?
I don’t know and that’s the central question. Is it possible to represent a relationship, a character or an identity in an “authentic” way? What is “authenticity”?
In this sense, I am interested in simulation. In how the representation of a character can move away from being pure masquerade and into a lived and psychologically experienced immersion into a character. In the case of Portraits, what would happen if we were to truly believe in the fiction of our relationship (as grandchild and grandmother or whatever the case)? What if it felt “real”? Are those emotions somehow “inauthentic” even if they are somatically and psychologically felt?
There were moments within the performance that the actor’s detailed choices were quite uncanny and hauntingly “accurate” (for example: how she would move her hands or use a word). When she interpreted things in a way that was unfamiliar, it would bring you back to the idea that it was a performance and that it was artificial. I was okay with this happening and welcomed the possibility that she would “fail” at creating a seamless simulation of the characters. In many of my works, I’ve been interested in the desperation of trying to get something “right” and the kind of tortured slapstick reveal of the fantasy falling apart.
In your performances you investigates authentic subjectivity and identity construction through psychoanalytic play and theatrical performance. The aspect of performance art is separate from the realm of theatre, yet there is blur between the two fields. Often in contemporary art, many artists are critiqued on their performances being “too theatrical”. How do you deal with your performances being too “over the top” and how do you mediate this struggle of critique?
I didn’t come from a theatre background. I feel like I experience theatre through the lens of Visual Art. When I was an undergrad in SFU’s Visual Art program, there was a lot of discussion about feminist performance in the 1970’s and interdisciplinarity. My introduction to performance came from that history and an interest in exploring identity through character play. Theatre is more a subject in my work than a medium. I’m interested in conventional theatre where people naturalistically take on characters. I have worked with theatre actors and I am interested in their process. While it can be a different language, those boundaries do often blur.
I have become increasingly interested in what constitutes “entertainment”. The overly “theatrical” is often the realm of the feminine, the queer, the other, the low, the tasteless etc. I’m interested in pushing against dominant tendencies in contemporary art that venerate restraint. I think that emotions, theatricality and “expression” can create an interesting histrionic rupture within the “white cube”. In this way, much of my work responds to popular culture and a desire to distort and critically respond to its gawdy noise. Interesting critical and conceptual possibilities lie in the act of pushing theatrical processes towards the absurd and grotesque.
Sam Taylor Wood’s Hysteria also shares similar notions of absurdity and the grotesque. This piece in particular focuses on the confusion of different emotions a female has. Specifically, it also references female hysteria, a common diagnosis during the Victorian era for women experiencing number of symptoms like sexual desire, insomnia, nervousness, and a tendency to cause trouble. Graduating from SFU and having knowledge of feminist performance history, does your work reference female hysteria? How do you explore the specular of femininity through the representation of emotion?
Definitely, I have continued to focus much of my work on constructions of gender. I am interested in how we display affect and emotion in terms of the body and how “emotionality” is thought of as feminine. The history of hysteria and the pathologizing of emotional experience has definitely informed my practice. There is a kind of horror and fear we have towards supposedly irrational “female emotions”. This tension between the fragile and the “untamed” often accompanies popular representations of women. I’m interested in how expressivity is both othered and consumed in our culture and how drag and other forms of hyperbolic or comedic performance can complicate this reality. Is “expression” inherently camp? From contemporary art to rock n’roll, how do we negotiate the representation of the “tortured artist”?
When observing and comparing your recent and past works, the earlier pieces reflect a mundane moment. Your recent pieces exhibit a dramatic crescendo. I observe a macroscopic to microscopic approach. What elements have shifted this transformation and raised a new area of interest?
I have been much more invested in materiality in the production and installation of recent video works. I’ve been considering the relationship between sets, costumes and props in the creation of a character. In the Breakdown Series (2013-2015 )I’ve been creating parallels between the deterioration of a material and the emotional “deterioration” of the protagonist. In these works, the central character is always a kind of prop, a ready made character-type that plays a kind of “supporting role” to the set and materials on display. My current work has been much more centered around the performativity of objects and materials rather than the psychological complexities of character-immersion. In the midst of our dematerialized digital landscape, I have a renewed interest in the tactile. I have a new appreciation for a more studio-based, object-focused approach.
Performance for me has often been about attempting to transform the body/mind. I’ve been caught up in the question of whether or not I can become someone else. Currently, I’m interesting in applying this approach to props and the architecture of the set/stage. How can the materials associated with a certain character enact a transformation? How can narrative be created through a material cycle?
Is there relation within performativity, materiality, and gender construction within your work?
Many of the characters I have developed start from a material interest. It could be an article of clothing, a wig, or more recently: sugar-glass. Many of these objects suggest a kind of gesture, narrative, environment or character. I find the link between materials and the development of a “personae” to be endlessly interesting. Recently, I’ve been working with domestic objects that are in a state of decorative decay (feather pillows that are falling apart, piles of chocolate wrappers that look like gold leaf and so on). Through the use of these “gendered” materials, I’ve been trying to explore the fetishistic relationship we have to objects. In a consumption-based culture, the links between the construction of identity and objects is apparent everywhere.
I see similarities between your work and Cindy Sherman’s work capturing different female personas through the medium of the lens. Sherman’s work revolves around still portraits and your work displays the “climatic” moment. Both being lens based artists, how do you see the comparison portrayal of a persona between a still photograph and a performance?
Photography and live performance deal with time in different ways. In a still photograph, you are dealing with the compression of time and the preservation of a moment. With performance, typically you have an immediate relationship with an audience and an experience of shared temporality. The immediacy and ephemerality of live performance and the permanence of a photograph strongly changes how a viewer/audience member experiences a character.
When I dealt with photography, I also tried to address the history of photography. I was particularly interested in the relationship between memory and photography and the attempt to represent identity through portraiture. With performance or the “acting body”, you are dealing with different histories like performance art, theatre, tv/film etc. Live performance allows you to work with the element of sound and the direct corporeality of the performers and the audience. In this case, you can play with the voice of a character or how they move in space.
How do you feel about a live performance compared to video?
When the camera is used in my work, there is often a self-referential awareness of its presence. I think that when video is used in a performance context the camera needs to be addressed in some way within the logic of the performance itself. The camera changes things. Whenever I make a video, I hope to ask myself why I am choosing to articulate my ideas through that specific medium. Why video verses a drawing or a photograph?
The camera comes with its own histories and associations. We live in a media saturated culture and the camera is a part of our daily life. We are increasingly experiencing life in a simulated and vicarious way through the mediation of the lens. In terms of performance, as soon as you bring the camera into it, you have to deal with all of the baggage around how we culturally use the camera. Video is a specific medium that I would apply, like any material, if it supported the conceptual needs of the work. I’m interested in comfort and awkwardness between performers and audience members and how live interaction verses recorded performance can be played with in terms of this dynamic.
Being in front of a camera does create a weird awkward tension. When the participants and yourself perform, do you perform even more overdramatically because of the presence of the camera or versus the adrenaline of being in front of a crowd for live performance. Which is more effective?
Both do create awkwardness. Acting for the camera has its own awkwardness. I’m interested in the tension that occurs when something over-exaggerated and overly theatrical is compressed into the space of the frame. In terms of what is effective, it depends on the situation and what you’re trying to attain. With live performance, you have a relationship with the audience. When you are being “over the top”, you are witness to the exhaustion, irritation or laughter from an audience in an immediate way. As a viewer of a live performance you are somewhat more captive than if you are watching a video in a gallery that you could walk away from at any time. In a live performance, the audience is performing with you. You can both share and control this exchange in a more direct way.
It makes sense, when you see a video in a gallery; a viewer is unlikely to watch the whole duration of the piece. Whereas in a live performance, one is forced to experience the lows and highs of the weird awkward tension.
Yes, the viewer’s willingness or refusal to endure absurd behaviors and over-exaggerated emotion is pretty interesting. When does something shift from being “entertainment” or “comedic” into something grotesque and frightening? With live performance you are sharing immediate space with the audience. Your bodies are more directly involved in an exchange with one-another.
You were just mentioning that the power dynamic between the audience and performer. When you are in a live performance who do you think has the power and where do you think it shifts? Who is in control of the power?
It changes depending on the kind of performance and the context you are working in. I would like to think that both the performer and the audience have the power. In conventional theatre, the performer asserts themselves in the space, puts on a show and does little to disrupt the third wall.
I think it’s much more interesting when there is a disruption in the fantasy. I try to create work that allows for a kind of performative conversation with the audience. With Encore, 2004, I planted “audience members” within the crowd and asked them to clap non-stop while I lip synched to single held note. It became a tug-of-war between myself, the planted “clappers” and the rest of the audience. It was as if their “praise” was also saying: “Please stop! We are clapping”. They were trying to shut me down, while I continued to “fight back” with the perpetual climax of the note. The “entertainer” is supposed to give the viewer what they want. What if you refuse to satisfy them? Who has the control over that relationship? Overall, I’m interested in these tensions in popular “entertainment” and how I can play with the language of spectacle culture in order to show its absurdity .
Aside from the power relation in your live performances, it also is evident in Auditions, 2011 when participants inhabited a character. The power is emphasized between the director/boss/analyst and the other an actor/employee/patient. What is the gravitating tension between the two characters’ relationship?
I’m interested in hierarchies of power in general, whether in a performance context (as in the tension between performer and audience) or in other kinds of situations; the art-world, the work-place and throughout Capitalist culture. I’ve been particularly drawn to exploring the relationship between professional and amateur performance and the hierarchy that is set-up between them.
In Auditions, I worked with professional, trained actors and other so called “amateur” performers (my mother, friends etc) who all have an interest in theatricality. Beyond the performers switching character-roles within each scene, the participants also switched roles during the shoot itself. In each take, we alternated who “played” the camera-person, director and actor. I was interested in the performers/participants having more power in the full realization of the work and seeing what would happen if the production acted as a kind of extension of the performance.
In terms of the one-to-one interactions within the narrative of the video, my interest remained in how these face-to-face power struggles could enact a kind of mirroring between the characters. They could morph into each-other or stand in as a kind of doubling of the self or split in the psyche.
Auditions, 2011 certainly makes reference to these banal relationships that some people may experience. You mention that in your video work, the language of television and theatre are more explicit. References like pop culture and drag are reoccurring components. Keeping that in mind, is your work specified for a particular demographic?
I hope that my work can be experienced on multiple levels by diverse viewers. I’m interested in questioning what constitutes accessibility. References to pop culture or comedy might open things up to audiences that are not necessarily familiar with contemporary art but ultimately, I hope that my work moves beyond being “funny” into something that is also conceptual or critically engaging for viewers. I am constantly attracted to the garish glitz of drag and the legacy of old Hollywood that I witness through the romantic fandom of my aging family. I’ve explored characters based on Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Liz Taylor, Maria Callas and others. In some ways, my work is related to a more “historical” cannon of celebrity culture. In this way, I guess anyone familiar with the visual culture around these icons could find a way to access my work. In terms of “demographics” I don’t try to make work for specific audiences, but I am consistently fascinated with the materials and objects associated with the feminine, the queer, the nostalgic and the so-called “low”.
Humour is an element that can be universal and bring common laughter between different demographics. Within humour, there are many elements like vulnerability, tragedy, and incongruity. What kind of elements of humour work within your practice especially when you are dealing with overdramatic scenes?
I’m interested in the slippages between “entertaining” comedy and experimental peformance. When does something move beyond being funny into the realm of the horrifying, the grotesque or the unbearable? I think humour can be an extremely useful tool in opening people up and engaging them in a work. When you start to play with their expectations you can allow for a more complex conceptual relationship to emerge. I also think there is still something radical about laughing in an art gallery and that there is a dynamism to exploring gender and power structures through the profane assault of comedy.
In terms of tragedy, my work is often bound up in questioning naturalistic representations of emotion and the viewer’s empathic identification with a character. I hope to be able to play with this identification by shifting between the “authentic” and the overtly “performed”. I’m curious about when and how a viewer moves from “sharing” an experience with a character to laughing at a display of emotion or distancing themselves from something that is “too over the top”. Generally, I’m forever curious about what makes something funny and the affect contagion that exists between performer and audience. It’s pretty exciting and interesting to think about this shared emotional space and the psychological complexities that are taking place within these exchanges.
Bo Ha is an emerging Korean-Canadian artist based in Vancouver, BC. She is currently completing her BFA in Visual Art and Art History at the University of British Columbia. Bo predominantly works with video, performance and sound. Her work explores the realm of the banal in terms of repetition.