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Antonia Blocker: Writing could be seen as a relatively hidden element of your practice, could you talk a little about its significance in your work and process?
Felix Melia: I was thinking yesterday, I began writing a few years ago in two distinct ways and the residency has created a kind of connecting tissue between those two ways. I thought they were the same, but I’ve realised they might be in opposition.
The first is an economy of means, writing an image down because I don’t have the resources to make it, to film it, to re-orchestrate it. I write in a very detailed way what I’ve seen. It’s a way of recollecting an image I’d like to make.
The second way is similar, but I realise now I do it for different reasons. I write down the spaces I move through. Again, I thought this was a way of remembering something I feel might become representative later on. They’re often spaces in which I find a network of connections that are hard to describe. Even in mundane places there might be some dynamic that presents itself like a kind of mysticism. Writing about these spaces isn’t about describing them, but conjuring those connections.
What I’ve been doing with the events for the Whitechapel Gallery residency is a way of connecting those two approaches. I’ve been researching this film, Ozu’s Arsehole through writing, without necessarily picking up a camera.
AB: It sounds like what you are talking about, these two kinds of writing, are both prior to a work, or developmental, but obviously the written word features very much within the work itself in the form of a script, so how do those two forms of writing play into what then appears within the work itself?
“[My] writing is always in development. I’m trying to perform the process of producing the work as much as the words themselves. It’s a way of gaining access to their content.”
FM: I think it leans more heavily on the second approach, this spatial approach in which I’m able to give a sense of an energy or a dynamic that might be hard to relay in pictures. I can be just as matter of fact or deadpan about things, but there’s enough there that people looking at the work, or reading those words or listening to them can access what are potentially very simple connections. I think there’s an architectural aspect to writing in the sense of constructing something legible that’s open.
When Ozu’s Arsehole became the focus I decided to create a performative framework for myself informed by the first rough cut that I showed at the beginning. The themes of the piece are played out spatially and are represented physically. The writing is always, as you say, in development, it still has that quality. I’m trying to perform the process of producing the work as much as the words themselves. It’s a way of gaining access to their content.
AB: You’ve said before that you’re never quite comfortable with the idea that a work is finished and like there’s always this dissatisfaction. Relating it back to your residency, the film and that process of reworking being made public, does that change your feeling about this idea?
FM: I’ve always liked things to be loose, but I don’t want to make a work that’s loose to the point that it does nothing but hint or leaves the viewer entirely cold. I’m aware that I put a certain amount of pressure on an audience and that my work is impressionistic, but I want the viewer to be aware of themselves in relation to the work, not because of it. I don’t want anyone to be subsumed. The onus is on me to create a dynamic. People have talked to me about things that were falsely advertised, because I made changes and made new plans. But that seemed like the right thing to do – basically to enact the residency on those evenings, to perform a residency. I hope that nothing I do is so theatrical that familiarity and friendliness are lost. The conversations here and elsewhere are as casual and natural for me as they would be under different circumstances. What I’m doing is behind the scenes and in front of the camera, at the same time.
AB: So in the way the structure and the content fold on themselves?
FM: Yes, or imbricate one another as time passes. Everyone edits, everyone deliberates, “that’s not good enough ” or, “that’s not working next to that” or, “I really like that bit but I’m going to have to lose it”. My fear is that it’s not interesting, but my hope is that I’m doing enough on the day that people feel they’re entering into a performative space and engaging with something other than my note taking.
AB: But do you think you’re going to eliminate this sense of a work never being finished? Is that the ambition? To be really convinced by something?
FM: There are going to be finger prints all over the next one, or a couple down the line, so that issue with a work being ‘finished’ is never going to go away for me.
“I really like walking. It means I can think about something through my surroundings, as they change, as I move […] I find it very hard to stand still without swaying and very hard to stand on location – at a bus stop for instance – without walking.”
AB: I recently asked you what was the zero degree of your practice, namely what’s left when you strip everything else away, and you said ‘walking’. I thought you meant in a developmental/facilitating way, but in your last performance you literally paced the room for 20 minutes as you read.
FM: I really like walking. It means I can think about something through my surroundings, as they change, as I move. It’s a way of enacting agency without the feeling of impacting negatively on others. I find it very hard to stand still without swaying and very hard to stand on location– at a bus stop for instance – without walking. If I’d tried to stand still during the last performance I would have become too aware of my body in those first few moments and become uncomfortable. By walking in circles I made myself bigger – I took up more space. Moving around also means I can speak through a rhythm and roll the words into the space and through it, relating them to the dynamics of the room. I didn’t want to do a straightforward reading, I wanted to trace the limits of the space and make a show of this regulated movement because it was connected to the text. So walking facilitated my ability to read out loud but was also a determined part of the performance.
Projecting the same video at opposite ends of the room was a way of shutting down the implied space of an image and highlighting the tension on the surface of a screen. It was a way of making those in attendance aware of their own bodies.
Incidentally that reading was a display of the way I write, or begin writing, which is by walking around typing on my phone, but I mostly do that outside.
AB: In a way, your body became an interference, your footsteps and the creaking floorboards interrupting the mic. I had always thought that your presence in your work was simply pragmatic, as it’s never obviously you; it seems your identity is intended to be invisible. Am I wrong? What’s the significance of you as a performer in your work? Or not you, in the case where you outsource the role?
When I annexed myself by closing the sliding doors at the start of the performance it created a severance and signified disembodiment, if only theatrically. My voice and all the sounds my body made were displaced through the speakers, while any sound that was audible but not amplified became residual. That act of disconnecting was a way of separating body language from the spoken word. I wanted to see what aspects of the performance people placed the most value on and what held their attention.
The figure that walks in the motorcycle helmet and the costume made of many coats in the film is an attempt at representing a body that doesn’t signify. During the performance it was as though my words gave it a voice – an omnipresent voice. Meanwhile my movements were no longer related to my voice in the narrative sense, maybe my body was just the apparatus. There’s the struggle to create a consensus, even with oneself, and there are the gaps in any attempt to do so, which I find more interesting. It’s the necessary task of contextualising oneself over and over. I’m interested in the pliability of the body, or moreover the self, within a social context. To go back to this idea from earlier, of keeping things loose, I think it’s more about presenting a constellation of markers. Nothing in the work is sequential; there are no dots to join. The work is a lattice in which these reflections and operations confirm and contradict one another as the dynamics shift. There was a struggle in that performance but it was always some version of my voice.
Mobility has become an important word for me because it can describe both physical and social phenomena. I’ve used it as a way of exploring relationships between the social body and the subconscious body in my work. I’m interested in how we interrelate – on a personal and societal level, and how we communicate with each other or to one another. The field has narrowed a little recently as I’ve tried to work out whether certain narratives were impacting upon my own sense of self and my own ability to relate to others. This stems from a desire, for me and for other people, to be able to move and not to be villainised and condemned for doing that. My work is about the impact of physical and social space, or representational spaces, on the body, on the surfaces of the body and its significances.
AB: And is there anything you can say about your final event at the Whitechapel Gallery on 11 August?
FM: I’m not sure exactly what will happen, but I’d like to bring some new imagery into the mix. I want to solidify the transition between the research I’ve done and my plans to make the film for real this summer – or during the summer and beyond. Transforming my notes and plans into performances has been a way of focusing on people’s posture whilst they watch. The film will have a lot to do with the way people stand. I want to make the content and the context fold into one another one more time.
Felix Melia:Table Read takes place on Thursday 11 August 2016 at 7pm.
Read about the Whitechapel Gallery’s Writer in Residence programme here.