But They Are Not You is a work produced by MAP, conceived in two parts – a series of letters and a book by artist Alex Reynolds. The work took place directly inside the viewers’ homes, unobtrusively accompanying their lives throughout the month of December, 2011. The message above was sent to the entirety of MAP’s mailing list in an email that called for those »interested in being on the receiving end of the piece« to write back.
Those who replied to this message were sent an exhaustive questionnaire, which ranged from standard survey questions to others such as »[i]f someone’s underwear was showing, would you tell them?« or »[w]hat do you do when you are home alone at night and you hear noises that sound like footsteps?«
After reading the answers, the artist selected eight people and created a fictional character for each of them that was as close to the real person as she could get. Throughout the month of December, each participant received a number of letters at home or at their workplace. The letters arrived through the post’s »return to sender« method, signed under their name and directed to one of the other participants. In this way, a story with multiple and intertwining plotlines was created, with each person only receiving the point of view of his own fictional character.
Dear Alex or Cara,
It is a rare thing that I cannot put a book down because of the space it allows me. It seems that you have created many voices and connections in order to mediate permission for the readers or receivers of each letter and question to exercise a certain kind of self, as they read about themselves through your voice. Maybe even leading to an exorcism of sorts. I’m getting messy with words now, but it seems you make it possible for the readers to feel heard (via a fiction based on the questionnaire), read (via letters they read from themselves), and read again (via dialogue with other participants). So (my apologies for taking so long) what I want to ask you to talk about is inspired from the title of a Nina Simone song, whom I know you also love, Please read me; what kind of feeling or imagination is attained through the possibility of reading others?
Alex Reynolds: One of the reasons I love Nina Simone is her ability to cover familiar songs and make them sound brand new, to make you hear them again as though for the first time, so you suddenly find meanings that you had never detected in the original track (the song you mention, Please Read Me is in fact a cover of a Bee Gees song). With But They Are Not You, I was attempting to achieve a similar effect, but with the readers’ perception of themselves. Through the questionnaire, each participant presented him/herself, and based on this I riffed a new version of them and played it back to them so that through my interpretation they had enough distance to read themselves anew.
When Simone sings »please read me,« I guess what she means is »understand me,« and this understanding involves the alignment of how she sees herself with how the other sees her; that’s when we feel understood, right? But what happens when someone misreads you, when they create a »version« of you that you don’t fully identify with? Whether the effect of reading the letters for the participants was one of recognition, discomfort, or both, we will never know, but to an extent I imagine it depended on whether the participant identified with what they read, and on whether they liked that portrait of themselves or not.
The project therefore lies in that space between how we define ourselves and how other people see us, raising the question of whether who we actually are might lie precisely in that ever-shifting territory where both are in continuous struggle. And perhaps it is managing to remain open in such a space that cracks open new possibilities for us, that generates a potential that you call a »permission to exercise a kind of self,« and which always takes place through others?
Cara Benedetto: This is a nice spiral into and about the way you think, thank you for your response. I’ve been thinking about feedback and ecstasy, and the way we embody dissemination, or if we can. How do you as an artist live and act beside your self? Is this a political act?
AR: I’m not sure I understand the question, what do you mean by »live and act beside your self?«
CB: The way that the participants feed into the narrative is by reading your words in their own (internal) voice. Do you as an artist also create scenarios where you are legible through the lens of others? (It is confusing!) Is this something you think is helpful in understanding your own position in society?
AR: Yes, there have been works where I appear directly, filmed or photographed by others, but whose portrait it is always remains a slippery question. Just like in But They Are Not You, it’s a two way thing: I am reading the participants, but they’re also reading me through the portraits I make of them. In When Smoke Becomes Fire… there is a set of slides of places I could only see by taking photographs of them with a flash, and a photograph of a mole on my head which I didn’t know I had before my ex-partner took a picture of it in order to show me. In the film Sheep Ox Wind, the camerawoman and I are constantly negotiating how to film one another, and how to tell the story of the events taking place around us. In both cases, the resulting work is a portrait of a relationship more than of a person. So subject and object are constantly flipping in my work, and, as you say, it can be confusing, but it’s a confusion I generally find productive, in When Smoke Becomes Fire… this relationship literally expands my image of myself.
There is an aphorism by Antonio Machado I go back to once in a while, that says »[t]he eye you see is not an eye because you see it; it is an eye because it sees you,« and I think a lot of my work revolves around this idea, the level of attention needed in order not to objectify the other, exploring the dangers and wonders of trying to break outside of your own position in order to include someone else’s. I’m not sure how helpful it is in understanding one’s position in society, perhaps it works as a reminder of how unstable that position is, and how its definition is a shared responsibility.
CB: I identify with all you say here. I really like how you define shared responsibility in the act of understanding the instability of one’s position in society. I often think about our days in residence at the Akademie Schloss Solitude. I felt that we shared (a trio with the two of us and Katarina Burin) sleeping spaces, eating spaces, walking and talking spaces, and this led to many contexts that embraced responsiveness. We felt the need to clarify and justify and process instead of produce or concretize. This is a lot of hard work, but it seemed very normal and necessary because we were so in tune with one another. I wonder if this had something to do with the actual sharing of space. Do you think about affect in your work? Is there a moment when you feel something too much?
AR: I think about emotion, I think about power relationships, and how both of these are essential to our idea of what constitutes a narrative, especially in film. Feeling too much, I guess the question here is what is »too much?« In my case, I guess too much would imply not having enough distance to make work …
CB: I often hear my students say that there’s not enough distance, and they relate this somehow to criticality. I take them to mean that they desire to have a bird’s-eye view so that they can understand how everything relates to their work and then they can control it and articulate it, and get it, reach some »ah-ha« moment. I always tell them what my friend, and artist, Christine Wang told me years ago: »You’re lying. You don’t want to get farther away, you want to get closer.« I took her to mean that in order to understand the mechanisms of the self, one must recognize truth and be as close as possible to the feelings related to that truth.
When you say that you may have too much distance to make work, do you mean that being close to your subject matter prevents you from seeing yourself or the idea/ person/ feeling? Or is it actually a physical proximity, a body in your bed, that prevents you from working? Do you need to be alone to make work? (Maybe talk more about your process?)
AR: I actually meant that if there is no distance I find it impossible to work. That’s part of the reason why we make things, right? To be able to look at them with some perspective and think through them, but also to generate an object, a word, a film, that can converse with another human being.
Having said that, I am interested in direct experience, in how confusing it is, and how that confusion kicks off a fumbling search for meaning and narrative. I often look for ways of recreating or representing that situation in the work and in the viewer. This is partly why a lot of my works are for one viewer at a time, who undergoes a certain experience alone, generating a need to explain it to himself, often by retelling it to other people. Some of the viewers who went through my work We Can Hear You Drink wrote to me to ask who else had seen the work, because they felt the need to talk to someone about it, but it had to be someone who had undergone the same experience.
I guess I do need to be alone to make work, to a certain extent … but I increasingly enjoy working with other people. It’s funny, but a lot of my thinking is informed by music, and by music I also mean the process of making and performing it. I used to work alone all the time, but a while back I spent five years playing with a band, we made a couple of records … and it was a real eye opener in terms of how to work with others. I used to be very protective of my ideas, a bit of a control freak, like many other artists. Playing with a band made me see how close collaborators can build upon your idea and make it better … At rehearsals it was so exciting to bring in a new melody, a new set of lyrics, a bassline or whatever, and know that after a couple of hours playing around with it together with these two other people, something unexpected, but infinitely better than what I could have ever imagined, would come out. That said, it’s not just working with anyone, it’s working with people you trust, whose criteria you respect. In the case of this book, my closest collaborator was the artist Gabriel Pericás, the book’s editor, designer, and publisher.
Back to your question, yes, I still need to work alone, but what I do alone is prepare for the work I do with other people, and involves writing a script, devising situations for actors to improvise, collecting images to share with my DoP … this blind faith in the results that working with others will bring is also why I have been turning to film; it’s a collaborative process I am very passionate about.
CB: I always feel a certain play in your work that has to do with how bodies interact with each other in relation to the unknown element that is usually embodied by language, or text, or speech.
AR: I’m interested in how we trespass each other’s bodies, or how we try to, be it literally and physically, or through the imagination needed for empathy to occur, through an invasive sound, through fiction, through rhythm … It is about how we communicate, how we can connect and share with one another, but also about how all of this can turn into violence when misplaced.