Causality in Chaos. Rachel Rose

in conversation with Kari Rittenbach

KR: The show that we’re supposed to discuss—actually the work that was commissioned specially for it—has been postponed until next year, due to the pandemic. The formal organization of reality has shifted drastically in the last six months, not least the mainstream perception of it. I noticed last week that a Soho shop we dropped into on a coffee date back in February had shut permanently. New York changes quickly, but you definitely sense these minor implosions all around—a general egress. Now it is just after 8 am on a Monday in September; we are speaking by telephone. Let’s begin with some background on Enclosure (2019) and the preceding film, Wil-o-Wisp (2018). These two works represent a significant step in the development of your filmmaking practice because you involved professional actors for the first time in both. There were figures in your earlier videos too, but they perhaps served more pensive purposes. We can also talk about the particular temporalities and what encouraged you to set a story in a historical, pre-capitalist era. What drew your attention to 17th-century England—or rather, 16th-century?

RR: Wil-o-Wisp takes place in the 16th century and Enclosure in the 17th. I came to Wil-o-Wisp in a roundabout way. At the time, I was experiencing a lot of successive coincidences. I was curious: what is a coincidence, literally and culturally? We don’t really have an argument for the value of a coincidence in our modern Western culture, but actually in that period in England they did have an idea of why and what a coincidence was, and it was linked to how they thought about causality and animism, The Great Chain of Being. This connection-between-all-things was central to how people thought.

KR: The idea that chance isn’t necessarily pure chance, that things happen for different reasons?

RR: Exactly. This worldview was connected to how people treated and understood the landscape. So when the landscape started to reshape during the Enclosure movement, it also reshaped how people thought of something as a coincidence. In all my work I’m trying to figure out how we live in our bodies and think now and how does our environment condition us.

KR: That makes me think about when our conception of reality changed. I’m trying to remember a time when there was still belief in magic. There are still societies, cultures, places where that kind of demystification hasn’t happened as thoroughly as it did in Manhattan. There is more cynicism here, also because you are constantly aware of moving through a sort of hard electrical grid that completely encompasses and captures you: a pulse on the cybernetic motherboard of urbanity. It’s a very different feeling to be freed from that structural overdetermination and have to look at nature another way. In terms of climate change, it is not difficult to grasp the way in which the environment is reacting against us at this moment. Culturally, we tend to close down the unpredictable—per the ethos of Silicon Valley. We account very little for nature, and grant even less importance to how the environment rules us. And we seem to be at the cusp of apocalypse in the United States now, considering the fires and the hurricane season, among other disasters… I like that Enclosure is construed as a fiction, rather than documentary or realism, because it takes an unfamiliar setting in which a lot of ideas were still loose and tells a story that is in fact quite simple. The story itself is not alien to the period we live in now. Did your own relationship to the countryside have any effect on your approach to the topic of the film?

RR: During the 16th and 17th centuries the houses were made of only plain wood and mud, with open fires in the middle. They were burning down a lot, death was omnipresent and one’s sense of vulnerability to the outside was strong. Now in New York, in part what was so traumatic about Hurricane Sandy is that we felt the grid, glass and steel are all permeable and that we’re not stable against external forces.

Enclosure, 2019

Enclosure, 2019

Palisades in Palisades, 2014, installation view, Rachel Rose, Kunsthaus Bregenz Photo: Markus Tretter

KR: As long as we have the electrical grid, we can still “plug-in”.

RR: I think this is connected to the thinking about magic. Mortality was at the forefront then, so thinking of the body as within a continuum was essential. With COVID and similarly with these fires, it’s new for us to experience death so frontally, maybe since September 11. We’re inundated with death and that has been paired with a pause in consumption culture, a breakdown of capitalism. In Enclosure I show people minting and making their own personal cash. At the time, cash was completely new, and people didn’t know what to do with it. There is this strong link between how we consume and how we sublimate death, and when one comes forward the other one has to retreat.

KR: There are hints of the violence of accumulation in your film. But the chaos of the action and the general instability also imply a significant amount of social change. We may only register the effects of this violence now, that is, after the fact—in that (in the West) we are so unaccustomed to suffering, and mortality on such scale. How did we arrive at such a point of environmental skepticism? I don’t mean climate-change skepticism, but rather that our individual fate is somehow independent of the context in which we live. When the economy essentially stopped in March, there was this momentary excitement at recognizing in this period of stillness, the indifference of animals to the same economic conditions. They were probably happy to encounter fewer humans! There was a false sense that the Earth would recover, or renew itself. But it was soon clear that the “pause” was not long enough to have any real effect on the ecosystem. Your films often approach very large issues. That question of mortality in Wil-o-Wisp and Enclosure is in fact where you started, as a filmmaker. Sitting, Feeding, Sleeping (2013) posed the question of what it means to be alive in the 21st century, and also how our concept of living has changed because of technology. Many of your works seem to mark periods of technological change, inflected through questions around our humanity. Everything and More (2015) contemplates the smallness of the Earth within the universe and how we emotionally figure into that landscape-space. Wil-o-Wisp and Enclosure are related although discrete films. How did they develop?

RR: They developed in parallel. I was invited to do this commission with the Park Avenue Armory before Trump was elected in 2016, and it was in that spring that Wil-o-Wisp was commissioned for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Wil-o-Wisp was a parallel dream to Enclosure. I was interested in the role of women and charting how they became victims in all this. It wasn’t the victims who came and founded America, it was the bad guys. It was the hustlers and the swindlers pushing people off of their land. These snake-oil salesmen and wheeler-dealers are the founding population of America.

KR: Yes, the confidence man.

RR: Exactly, America really grew that guy, and I was thinking about where this type of person comes from, structurally, and why it is so distinctive here. And so I was looking at the bad guy in England during the Enclosure movement—the slimy swindler snaking into a dystopic landscape, developing behaviors that were exported to America. So for me making Enclosure was a way to think about the founding of this country. The two works are two perspectives reflecting from the same moment. One inward and then the second outward. When I was working on Wil-o-Wisp I had no clue what I was doing with the actors and that is why there is no dialogue in the film and it was designed to be shot in a series of still, locked-off tableaux shots, with voiceover to articulate the story. But with Enclosure, working on the story with a screenwriter and then being on set and working with actors, there were whole new layers to get excited about learning through.

KR: Wil-o-Wisp obviously made me think about the Salem Witch Trials and other “heretical” persecutions that happened in the colonial United States—the witch-hunt is a fundamentally American institution, predicated on the survival of a larger (insular) community. It is a peculiar inversion of the ideology of religious freedom. What I find so compelling about Silvia Federici’s historical writing is that she does not really delve into the mysticism of witchcraft, but rather emphasizes the transformation of society and the devaluation of local knowledge that enables the process of dispossession. One of the ways in which people identified your work early on was through your precise editing technique—collaging and montaging video is obviously not new, but you often combine found and newly shot footage in novel ways. The particular shots in Palisades in Palisades (2014), for example, were done prior to the more mainstream availability of the drone camera. Yet you achieved severe angles and intense close-ups against the sheer basalt cliffside that were afterwards juxtaposed with playful images made using old cinematic tricks in the studio, prints of historical paintings and other research material. There is a tendency to structure your films through this kind of editing. Turning to your more recent films, and the new demands of working with live actors and narrative, I’m wondering if you feel that editorial process has perhaps shifted forward—that it is set in real time rather than post-production, from giving direction to actors to framing shots as you go along. In Enclosure, I found a certain attentive weirdness to the abrupt introduction of characters, the ways in which emotion was protractedly reflected in an actor’s face. At times the effect is startling. How do you account for that?

RR: Totally central to how I conceived Palisaded in Palisades was how I was curious about trompe l’oeil, which is basically a form of time travel. In editing you can create a parallel, a visual language to this time travel effect. In each of my works I have a structure for the edit that’s particular to the content and feeling. Transparency and fluidity are central to Everything and More, and so that was essential to how the work was both installed and edited.

KR: How the images were overlain, and also merged or moved together.

RR: Enclosure was different because it was a linear story with dialogue and actors. Especially because the main character, Recent, watches this family and absorbs how they behave. A lot of these kind of close-up shots were about occupying Recent’s eye, so the edit reflects her consciousness. I was also thinking about people’s nonlinear experience of each other in this dense forest landscape.

KR: I can see how you consider Enclosure to have a straight narrative structure—the viewer is introduced to the story through Recent’s eyes but in the classic film noir way, without all the information to hand. Yet there are jump cuts between plot points and there is a degree of unveiling as well. There is also the immersion of the viewer in this almost unimaginable pre-capitalist time period. That historical background is a key device that alludes to the narrative’s tone of near-magical-reality. What was the experience of someone living in that period? When the woman materializes suddenly in the forest, that did strike me as analogous to a New York moment. The forest was quite populated and active then, such that various elements or figures might only seem to emerge, rhythmically, to a particularly keen observer. Her drawn face serves as a kind of “punctum” as the camera pans across an endless, extensive green.

RR: And then this kind of wild, unleashed woman is talking about a bear eating her family… it’s like… What are people up to?

KR: Did you enjoy working with actors? What is the difference between video art and auteur cinema?

RR: I loved working on set so much, in all the aspects of it, everyone’s expertise performing something together. Actors are inspiring in that they can create and describe complex feeling through their bodies— like how something that’s scary can also feel sublime, or something that’s ecstatic can also feel mundane. So working with actors feels like a further detailing of something I’ve always been interested in, contradictory or wide swaths of feeling coming together. All my previous works were also little stories but I think there’s something about a traditional narrative emotional arc that gives more room to these weavings of emotions.

KR: Little stories, or perhaps episodes on the intersection of feeling and technology throughout our history. What was your research process on Enclosure regarding the sets and costumes? What is your investment (if any) in historical continuity? I recently watched Roberto Rossellini’s miniseries L’età di Cosimo de’ Medici (1972) and was impressed by the casting, costuming, styling and even posture of the actors. There must have been so many historians on set advising on Quattrocento Florentine headgear…

RR: I actually had some Rossellini images tucked up when I was working on this! He represents color so vividly.

KR: Yes—I also thought, wow, there is an embedded history of painting in this television production. It is so sumptuous. Is there any connection, for you, between this type of video production and history painting?

RR: When I was making Wil-o-Wisp I was thinking about that, that’s why I shot it in tableaux too. I was composing these still frames, like a painting or a photograph. And from a production design and costume perspective, we were working with a living history museum in Massachusetts, where we also shot the film. The production of Enclosure was so detailed and intense to create. For example, the candles in Enclosure, we made them on set by hand. That whole kitchen that you see in the widow’s house was built in two days. Everything you see in that kitchen was explicitly made for that shot. I worked with costume designer April Napier, who sourced many of the costumes from the Warner Brothers’ Studios archives in Los Angeles, and then many others were handmade. Every piece of paper you see, we designed. The project was so sculptural, which I hadn’t thought it would be.

Autoscopic Egg, 2017, installation view, Lafayette Anticipations, Paris, 2020 Photo: Andrea Rossetti

KR: That’s incredible. Considering that the film is about belief, and that it takes place during a period of historical transition—in which values long held in common were destabilized—at its center is the question of what people thought, knew, desired, or were deluded by. On another level, constructing all of that is what the film director does for the audience, too. So if that “sculpture” is not exactly part of the film’s narrative, it is very much a part of building that emotional world.

RR: Yes. I’m so attracted to period films for this sculptural quality…

KR: Do you think you will work on another one soon?

RR: I’m not sure, it’s an undertaking. But that’s why I thought Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) was cool, because it felt so light in how it constructed the period, there were basically two costume changes and a handful of locations.

KR: Yes. It’s a “light” reinterpretation. Going back to Silvia Federici, too, in thinking about women as the casualties of mainstream western history (rather than primarily responsible for its perpetuation) is also obviously critical to any historical representation of this kind. It makes me think of Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983), and also Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991)both directors probably invented a lot to reproduce the necessary tension, or (feminist) dynamics. Of course there is a lot of history there; but it has been suppressed. Cinema has the potential to recover all that in a non-linear way… Were there particular films that were important for you while working on Enclosure?

RR: I was definitely looking at Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975) and of course Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). But I see where you’re going; was I thinking about historically untrue historical films.

KR: Not necessarily untrue; let’s say fictional. We are missing certain stories—the stories of the oppressed—so it is a political necessity to invent a narrative that we cannot otherwise access. I think there is some poetic and artistic license being taken—I mean that in a positive way. You can in fact create an emotional world that is a historical “inaccuracy,” that is perhaps a parallel allegory for the present. What you are working on now?

RR: I started working on a script for a feature during quarantine after having spent the past year and a half reading a lot in preparation. I felt there was so much about character and plot arc and setting that I learned on a steep incline in the making of Enclosure, and I wanted and needed to live in writing for a while, to grow my references of good storytelling—from modern gothic writers like Caroline Blackwood and Christopher Priest and sci-fi world builders like Jeff VanderMeer and Ursula Le Guin to short story masters like Ottessa Moshfegh and Samanta Schweblin. Film comes from the novel, so what better way to learn about screenwriting than to read fiction?

Causality in Chaos. Rachel Rose
in conversation with Kari Rittenbach

CURA.35 FW20-21

All images Courtesy: the artist, Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels, and Pilar Corrias, London

RACHEL ROSE (b. 1986, New York, NY, USA) lives and works in New York. Recent and upcoming solo exhibitions include: Enclosure, Park Avenue Armory, New York (2021); Pond Society, Shanghai (2020); Rachel Rose, Lafayette Anticipations, Paris (2020); Rachel Rose, Fridericianum, Kassel (2019); Enclosure, LUMA Foundation, Arles (2019); Wil-o-Wisp, Pilar Corrias, London (2019); Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia (2018); Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin (2018); Kunsthaus Bregenz, Bregenz (2017); Lake Valley, Pilar Corrias, London (2016); Contemporary Projects: Rachel Rose, Serralves Museum, Porto (2016); The Aspen Art Museum, Aspen (2016); Everything and More, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2015); Palisades, Serpentine Gallery, London (2015); Interiors, Castello di Rivoli, Turin (2015). Past group exhibitions include: Childhood, Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2018); Carnegie International, 57th Edition, Pittsburgh (2018); 57th Venice Biennale (2017); 32nd São Paulo Biennial (2016); The Infinite Mix, Hayward Gallery, London (2016); and Development, Okayama Art Summit, Japan (2016). She is the recipient of the Future Fields Award and the Frieze Artist Award.

KARI RITTENBACH is a critic and independent curator based in New York. Her writing is published in Artforum, Frieze, Flash Art, May Revue, Mousse, Texte zur Kunst, and in artist books and museum catalogues. Recent and forthcoming projects include Silvia Kolbowski: The Sleep of Reason (Yale Union and NW Film Center, Portland, 2019), Coming Soon (Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, 2018), What Everybody Knows (Svetlana, New York & Jenny’s, Los Angeles, 2017), and On Limits (The Kitchen, New York, 2016).