Ana Torfs in conversation with Els Roelandt2006-01-01
Els Roelandt: 'How important was it to create your new work ANATOMY at this moment in time (2006), in this specific place (Berlin), within this institution (DAAD)?'
Ana Torfs: 'DAAD (www.daad-berlin.de) is not an institution as such, not if you think of it as an actual building where you might work, or anything like that. Each year DAAD, a German Artists-in-Residence programme, invites an always changing (anonymous) jury to provide 6 "visual artists" from various parts of the world with the opportunity to come to Berlin for a year, to live and work there. The artists get a monthly allowance, so they can concentrate fully on their work, which is a luxury, of course. Furthermore a spacious apartment is put at their disposal. Apart from myself Nico Dockx (Belgium), Deimantas Narkevicius (Lithuania), Helen Mirra (USA), Pavel Braila (Moldavia) and Sanja Ivekovic (Croatia) were also invited in 2005.'
'The first meaning of the word "anatomy" is "dissection": "the art of separating the parts of an organism in order to ascertain their position, relations, structure, and function," but in a broader, more figurative sense it also means "analysis": "a separating or dividing into parts for detailed examination." It is used in that sense in the title of Robert Burton's book "The Anatomy of Melancholy" (1621) and in the title of the film "Anatomy of a Murder" (Otto Preminger, 1951). My new work ANATOMY might also be considered relevant because it focuses on one of the recurring themes in my body of work. I've often centered my works on a text as a starting-point: historical documents like a trial text ("Du mentir-faux", 2000), the conversation booklets of a composer gone deaf ("Zyklus von Kleinigkeiten", 1998), but it might just as well be a play ("The Intruder", 2004), lyrics ("Approximations/Contradictions", 2004) or an opera libretto ("Il Combattimento", 1993). In each case these texts are dissected, after which they take on a new aspect, as they are staged with actors and actualised. On top of this, a part of the new installation ANATOMY, a series of black-and-white slide projections - realised with 17 well-known and less-known German actors between 24 and 81 years of age - was photographed in the Berlin Anatomical Theatre, a building with a particular history. It was erected during the 1789-1790 period by Carl Gotthard Langhans, the architect who also built the Brandenburger Tor. In some ways this building, a dissecting theater, might be perceived as a more general metaphor for my work, where reading matter is subjected to an analysis/dissection, rather than bodies.'
'In a sense my new work ANATOMY is about the "anatomy of a murder," the analysis of a murder. To this effect I studied the whole Record of Proceedings, of the "Case of the Murder of Dr. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg before the Military Field Tribunal of the Cavalry Guard Rifle Division in the Main Courtroom at the Berlin Criminal Court", a document of some 1200 pages from 1919, in the Military Archive in Freiburg. From this text I distilled the statements of 25 different persons who were heard at the trial - defendants and random witnesses - who had been narrowly involved in the killing of both founders of the German communist party, and processed them into a "Tragedy in Two Acts". Through 25 versions of the "truth" a fragmented and always shifting image of the last half hour in the lives of Liebknecht and Luxemburg reveals itself.'
'I had found out about the existence of this trial several years before I left for Berlin, during research for the "reading diary" which accompanied my installation with slide projections "Elective Affinities/The Truth of Masks" (2002). In a publication from 1967 by historian Elisabeth Hannover-Drück and lawyer Heinrich Hannover I had read a number of fragments from this case, described by the authors as a "Justizkomedie" (comedy of justice). When I arrived in Berlin, somewhere in March 2005, I wanted to keep all my options open, I had no idea what I wanted to start working on. A number of elements, however, encouraged me to get to work with the aforementioned criminal proceedings. Berlin has excellent libraries, like the magnificent "Staatsbibliothek" (State Library) in the Potsdamerplatz area, a building by architect Hans Scharoun, immortalized in the opening scene to Wim Wenders' film "Der Himmel über Berlin" (Wings of Desire, 1987). DAAD also offers the possibility to take German language classes, and I've used this time to subject the trial fragments, selected in 1967 by Heinrich and Elisabeth Hannover, to a very intense "close reading", in order to get through to the finer meanings of these at times somewhat archaic words, to catch the tone of the proceedings in the best possible way. Finally my stay in Berlin was important in finding the 42 actors of various ages, which I needed for the realisation of ANATOMY. I don't think there is another city with so many theatres and such a rich theatrical tradition (of Bertolt Brecht, Erwin Piscator and Max Reinhardt). So for several months I've immersed myself in the theatre life of Berlin, in order to prepare my casting.
Roelandt: 'Word and image are often of equal value in your work. In ANATOMY actors interpret, among others, a text which you selected and adapted. Which interpretation did you expect from these actors with regards to the text: they rarely seem theatrical, but rather solemn. It would seem that the way you work with the actors is no different from your approach to the text. Or is there an essential difference?'
Torfs: 'Generally I spend a lot of time on a text: I keep polishing the selection, the order of the chosen fragments etc. This was the case for "Zyklus von Kleinigkeiten", for instance, it took me over a year to read all of Beethoven's conversation booklets, over 4000 pages, and distill a text from them which can be heard off-screen in the film. Even though I do not write these texts myself - they are "objets trouvés" (found objects) - copying, cutting and pasting them is a process which is just as slow and intense. For my installation with slide projections "The Intruder" (2004) - for which a theatre text from 1890 by Maurice Maeterlinck was taken as a starting-point - an incredible amount was omitted, obsolete characters were left out etc. The original French text of this play was specifically retranslated to English for this project (the last English translation dated back to over 100 years ago). In this way I wanted to actualise the text by Maeterlinck and bring it closer to the work of such authors as Beckett, to which it relates in many ways.'
'I like to surprise actors: speed is important, in that way something can happen in front of the camera which escapes their command of the situation. For that reason actors hardly get an opportunity to "perform", more than anything else they have to "be". For the video segment of ANATOMY the recordings with 25 actors were managed in five days. The slide photographs with 17 actors in the Anatomical Theatre were shot in a single day, taking in the light of the moving sun as a major extra element.'
Roelandt: 'I think it has to do with the way in which you pick out a text, then make selections within the text itself, i.e. which particular fragments you want to use and how you visualise them later (or make them heard). To this effect you bend the text to your own will, to some degree, or rather to your work. The same thing happens - to my mind - with the actors, the way they are brought in is well-defined. According to which criteria do you select texts, and actors?'
Torfs: 'I have done the casting of 42 actors in Berlin over a rather short time period, something I never leave to others: it is a quest for very particular persons. For the video images of ANATOMY 25 actors were needed, of roughly the same age as the witnesses and defendants of that time (between 17 and 44 years of age). They were handed the text in advance, so they could memorize it, with a single instruction: do not attempt to act a "part", and leave out "Bewertung", as they say in German, judgement or evaluation of what you are saying. Everything was recorded without any rehearsal. This results in an intense concentration in front of the camera. The actors were also instructed to face the camera directly the whole time, a genuine ordeal at times. And in spite of the fact that I had asked them not to act, the result can be very penetrating. The actors were also stimulated to leave a lot of "white space", i.e. silences between the sentences: voids for the spectators to fill in, offering them time and space to picture what is being said. The actors all wear a classic shirt: they are young people of today, not actors reconstructing characters from 1919. Because of the head-on filming, up close to the face of the actor, an intimacy arises in which all of the attention goes out to the actor and his face. There is nothing left to hide. The actor stands naked and vulnerable before the camera, in a matter of speaking, his voice is his only instrument. What happens if you ask young actors from today to "perform" such a text from 1919 ...? How much or how little can you read from a face?'
'I do not really "choose" the texts from which I create my works according to a predetermined idea. One might say I just happen to "run into" these texts. Sometimes you discover something in a library, next to another book you were looking for; sometimes through a newspaper or magazine ... Each of the texts I've read either get stuck in my mind, or make me feel like doing "something" with them. Often they are texts in which I sense strong dramaturgical and narrative material, which might move a contemporary audience. Most of the time this is followed by a long process of "dealing" with that text: looking for a context to understand a specific text, also to explain things better to the actors later, should that need turn up. In preparation of ANATOMY I've also seen a lot of fiction films which take place in a courtroom, like "Judgment at Nuremberg" (Stanley Kramer, 1961).'
'After reading the trial proceedings concerning the murder on Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht the fragments about the killing itself turned out to contain less lies than all the rest, with regards to the murder on Rosa Luxemburg, at any rate. It is remarkable how the language of the military is in contrast with that of random witnesses, like a bookkeeper, a waiter, a cloakroom attendant; how a military of higher rank is a better liar than a common soldier etc. It is also fascinating to see how language itself speaks volumes, how language is always subjective. That's why I think my works are a lot less "about history", than about language ... A similar idea is found in a quote from Michel de Certeau's "L'écriture de l'histoire" (The Writing of History, 1975): "Ce que nous appelons d'abord l'histoire n'est qu'un récit." (What we first call history is merely an account.) He means that history is never objective, the subject/author/speaker always resounds in the language. There is no such thing as a clear divide between the naked fact and the interpretation, or taking this a step further, fact and fiction. In the end history/a story is coloured by language, there is no way around that. The video images in ANATOMY, German-spoken testimonials, were translated "live" by an English interpreter, by the way, as she was hearing the statements for the very first time, and her "interpretation" - which can be heard in the exhibition over wireless headphones - shows how agile language really is.'
Roelandt: 'And something else, is it possible to describe your working methods as those of a film director?'
Torfs: 'Clearly there are similarities, with regards to the working method - as I also work with actors, in a setting, with a photo or film camera - but at the same time the final result of my installations is far removed from classic cinema.'
Roelandt: 'The restraint of your settings gives a certain degree of abstraction to some of your images, they even get a certain iconic value, they become ageless. So what is the relevance of the specific (historical) context to which the works are linked in that respect? How do both elements (the specific and the abstract) interact with each other?'
Torfs: 'A possible misconception in the reception of my work is that people often dig in too quickly in the obvious historical link which I hand them. It is so easy to lose oneself with words in the process: people no longer discuss what is actually there in my work to be seen and heard, in stead they talk/write "about" Beethoven ("Zyklus von Kleinigkeiten") or "about" Joan of Arc ("Du mentir-faux") and I also get content questions "about" these people. So ANATOMY is definitely not "about" Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Even though I often take historical texts as a starting-point for my installations, the ultimate goal or the result is not "historical" or something that lies in the past. Robert Bresson writes in his "Notes sur le cinématographe" (Notes on the Cinematographer, 1975): "No historical films, that might make a 'spectacle' or put up a 'masquerade'. (In 'Procès de Jeanne d'Arc', I have tried, without making a 'spectacle', nor putting up a 'masquerade', with historical words, to find a non-historical truth.)" Or in a recent monograph on Roberto Rossellini there are some similar words: "What interested Rossellini in dealing with the past was not to show what actually happened, but to take from it an idea that could help us to reorientate ourselves in the present. Like Croce, he saw all history as 'contemporary history'."'
'It is true that I try to look for a certain "degree zero" in stage-setting, some kind of "blank" or void, leaving open the largest possible number of associations to the spectator/visitor of the exhibition. How much or how little do you need in order to tell something: an actor, possibly a voice, well-picked clothes? The "settings" in my work are often reduced to a light, white background, in front of which the face of an actor is photographed/filmed in close-up, a subtle reference to the white projection screen: a metaphor for all the possible projections of each individual spectator. The most extreme example in this respect might be the slide projections of "Elective Affinities/The Truth of Masks" (2002). The 162 different "disguises" of a single actor and actress can lead to countless possible stories and interpretations. I often use black-and-white for my images, which creates a degree of abstraction in itself. But the actors are always clearly identifiable as people of today, they do not immerse themselves in specific historical figures, or try to fathom a historical character.'
Roelandt: 'In your work you observe/study certain aspects of history, in an almost microscopic way. In the publication which you put together for your work ANATOMY you write, among others, a text which sets out with a quote from Hannah Arendt, in which she discusses an attempt to reconcile with the past. Might your work be read as an attempt to get a better understanding and perception of the past? Is it also a way, in the end, to reconcile the spectator with the past?'
Torfs: 'It would be naïve to think that it is possible to reconcile the spectator with the past through art, but to be precise: in this quote and the context from which it arises Hannah Arendt is actually talking about the use of literary forms, of fictionalisation in order to discuss the past. She also writes how for certain memories a proper literary form can only be found after many years, on the moment when the indignation and pertinent rage have come to a halt. And that is the reason why I used that quote, because to me fictionalisation and distance to an event is very important. Moreover, what I want to say about my own work I often write down in texts, which - like a programme booklet in the opera or the theatre - might help to get a better understanding, but reading them is definitely not a requirement. The publication that comes with my installation ANATOMY is not part of the installation itself. It exists in itself, like an author who would write an essay about my work.'
Roelandt: 'In that text you clearly make your own voice heard, very different from your "distant" role as a director. In a sense you become an "anatomist". Did it feel as a necessity that you had to express yourself this way, or as an evolution in your work as a whole? Was it the specific subject matter (content) or the form of ANATOMY that compelled you to do this?'
Torfs: 'In the book that was published with my installation "Du mentir-faux" (2000) I also wrote a very personal text and, like with ANATOMY it is not required for an understanding of my work, it just offered possible lines of thought to the spectator. The first sentence of this text went as follows: "It was impossible not to write this text." A very penetrating text, some might say almost unbearably so, probably because of its intimate nature, which will affect the way you look at the installation, that is for sure. My voice also returns in the "reading diary" accompanying the installation with slide projections "Elective Affinities/The Truth of Masks" (2002), which I mentioned already. It is important to me that I am able to share some of my fascination for the selected text material and my working method with the audience. Moreover, I don't think I have ever kept my distance to the material I worked with. If you take a year of your time to go through about 4000 pages of Beethoven's conversation booklets, and make a selection out of them for a feature film of 86 minutes - merely a fraction of the material I have read - than it is obvious that my own voice does come through as well: no two people would ever have created the same textual construct.'