in conversation with
MARIANNA SIMNETT I’ve been watching Hellraiser everyday for breakfast. I watch a bit before I fall asleep and finish it when I wake up. It bridges the night and the day, inviting hell into my world each morning.
ED FORNIELES I like the idea of letting hell in over breakfast, prolonging that nightmare. I’ve also been watching a lot of horror films over COVID, they feel oddly cathartic in these times. It’s comforting to give anxiety a form. What are the demons in Hellraiser again?
MS: Cenobites. They are angels of carnal pleasure, they tear humans apart with chains and hooks. It’s a BDSM feast of torture and flayed skin. Very beautiful.
EF: The flayed bodies seared themselves into me when I was a kid. I like the idea of the Cenobites, they bridge into our reality, consuming us to construct their own bodies one layer at a time. And the world they come from just feels like it’s either constructed from our anxieties or darkest desires.
MS: Right now, hell is around our ankles. It’s seeping through the cracks on Earth, creeping into our homes. The ‘80s promised boundless futures, even optimism. It’s dumb to think about progress right now. We live in multiple temporalities and dimensions, and the future has already collapsed into the present.
EF: We go through cycles of optimism and...
EF: Skepticism. That is a poignant image, realities coexisting and crashing into each other. One person’s heaven is another’s hell. These ideologies compete with each other for resources, for people, making any one clear sense of a future impossible to imagine or just simply confused. One of the similarities in our work is around worldbuilding which I think is connected to ideas of futures.
MS: Yes. We share a love of bringing the fantastic into reality and watching it unfold.
EF: You adopt a cinematic language, but it is still very real, like your fainting piece, it’s not faked. You actually do that. The same is true of the things that you film. They are a documentation of something real.
MS: Like cockroaches having electrodes planted into their brains in Blue Roses (2015). Or my latest project Covering (2020) which documents a mare’s resistance to a stallion and her retaliation against being raped. I’m steered by my imagination, which never fails to throw up more fevered secrets. It’s the most important tool to access our subconscious realm, however dark or nasty it gets.
EF: The subconscious is real, our desires, anxieties and imaginings are all very real and it becomes a question of how we draw them out. We are constantly projecting, constructing our realities through our expectations, running a simulation that defines a range of what is and isn’t possible. Messing with shared fiction feels to me an exciting proposition.
MS: There are a number of certainties, like tomorrow is Thursday. But it’s fun to screw with those. You shouldn’t assume things are going to follow just because they did yesterday.
EF: And that’s something we share. To disrupt expectations, to reframe, to reflect back. Let’s talk about some of the responses to your work.
MS: Several people have fainted. Others have fallen over, cried or been sick. Faint with Light (2016) can trigger personal trauma, but it also makes people laugh and jump up and down like in a disco.
EF: I like to talk about the work in terms of affect, you know, how the work exists primarily in the viewer’s response. I don’t know if it even exists outside of that. You can have an intellectual response, but the best work is visceral, you internalize it, hold it in your body.
MS: Visceral, emotional, psychological. Maybe theoretical, but not only. It’s got to have all of those levels.
EF: For sure.
MS: Faint with Light is simply composed of light and breath. Even if you don’t know I’m fainting, anybody can intuitively recognize there’s something wrong and pained about the sound my body is creating. You don’t need prior information to feel the work on a physical level. Going deeper, it could be seen as a rejection of the swooning female as a symptom of hysteria. Going deeper still, it is a response to my grandfather’s story, who was meant to be shot but fainted during the Holocaust.
EF: That’s another important thing, to tie in one’s personal experiences and biography. Because it’s unavoidable. It’s so easy to hide under the blanket of objectivity within art. Something I value greatly about your work is your willingness to put yourself into it and forfeit something.
MS: Likewise, with Cel (2019) you really went deep. But autobiography can be troublesome. Do you think someone’s work can be separated from their personal life and opinions? Do you think artists should also be saints?
EF: For me Cel was deeply personal, or it allowed me to use the personal to talk about structures that I have felt shaped by. That work was born out of a moment where I was forced to seek help because I entered a period of crisis. The personal becomes a vital way of talking about the political and to do that fully I don’t think you can be thinking about appearing ethically righteous.
MS: My work is being censored right now by an institution and it’s driving me insane. There’s a growing atmosphere of fear and constraint. I don’t even think these gatekeepers have an opinion of their own. There’s a fear of getting called out, that even the slightest provocation gets cancelled or shut down before it’s had a chance to air.
EF: There is a general fear that representations of violence elicit real violence and that can create a puritanical mindset where a curator takes on the role of protector. When in reality the relationship between culture and reality is anything but literal.
MS: Totally. Clive Barker was grilled on Open to Question in 1987: “Do you think it’s right to use explicit violence in your films? Do you not think that people are going to latch onto it and try and follow it through?” And he was like, “What could you latch onto? I don’t have a body in the attic that I can raise from the dead.” Shutting violence in, like any censorship, is always going to come out in terrible ways. It’s crazy that people think that you’re going to immediately repeat that representation out into the world. If you really are a psychopath you’re just as likely to get triggered by fluffy bunnies as demons.
EF: So it becomes about repression. As I mentioned before, I find horror to be a cathartic experience. Watching it holds the possibility of confrontation and release. Cel became a chance to do this, to confront a kind of violence and work through it. So there is a sense that the violent and the horrific can be seen as a positive, but perhaps it always comes back to context.
MS: During your roleplays does the performer’s own identity ever merge with their character?
EF: Yes, in roleplay, we would call that bleed. Your character bleeds into your identity. There are two videos in Cel and one is of the debrief sessions recorded afterwards. You hear about how people’s experiences immersed in play relates to their pasts and how they are being affected in that moment. This interplay between immersion and a reflective stage is of vital importance to me. How have your works affected you afterwards?
MS: I’ve often found myself in dangerous water. Recently my work has given me a lot of love. But it’s taken me a long time to get to a point where the work wouldn’t in some way damage me. This is like mental health shit. Are we really talking about this?
EF: I think it’s very relevant. Artists often use their artwork to make sense of their own lives and to deal with, process or even repeat things. I know that’s true for me.
MS: Art is a language that you form, in my case, from a young age that is an equivalent to learning the alphabet or learning an instrument, right? You become agile at coming up with ways of manifesting something invisible in your brain, in your psyche, and putting it out there in the world. That’s what art is, right? Would you agree?
EF: Totally, it’s perhaps even on one level a coping mechanism.
MS: But you’re not saying, “Heal me, Art!” I’m just making stuff because it’s a language I’ve learned. And at the same time, yes, there are these secret devilish wormholes that infest you, and somehow your work tackles them on your behalf.
EF: And I see that with you and with many artists. It is largely on a subconscious level, where experiences and attitudes that define you end up surfacing again and again in the work. There are certain themes, strands and desires that repeat, even when I’m doing my best to avoid them.
MS: And the more you make the more they surface. Some of my work precedes my ability to articulate the same thing in language. Like identifying as queer. There was no verbal language to describe how strange and uncomfortable I felt being inside a female body. All the while I was working with fluid genders, sworn virgins, changing my voice. I didn’t know I was working through something that would later be given a whole identity and language.
EF: And the artist can often feel like they are on this lonely adventure to try to find language to articulate these impulses.
EF: What is interesting in your instance is that there’s this culture and social discourse that comes up and meets you and gives you some words.
MS: It’s helpful. And I’m grateful. But it can send you into some maddening places when you have no structure or role models to grip onto.
EF: Totally. But I think there are always pockets of people. You know, we’re all repeating the same thoughts. Everyone has similar impulses. And that’s what defines groups of people. That’s why queer culture has done so well. Lots of people have probably felt very similar things to you, and it’s helped them to be drawn to similar places, to find each other. I found the LARP community, other people who are interested in confronting themselves through role play. It’s a beautiful thing to find others like you.
MS: It’s fantastic. Tell me about your associative project.
EF: It’s a series of films, collages and sculptural works, which I generate through this free associative state. They are connected thematically, aesthetically or conceptually forming large chains of images that cover a huge amount of ground. Viewing them is an incredibly soft experience, your brain is instantly gratified, moving from one image to the next.
MS: So you’re almost using it as a psychoanalytical test.
EF: Not a test, but almost like a practice. It sounds weird, but it feels healthy. It stops me getting caught up on one particular thing. You are forced into a state of movement of flow whilst making them. It mimics an online experience, where you are interacting, negotiating with an algorithm in your search for an image, or a bit of information.
MS: It’s quite funny, you are putting your body through the labor of an algorithmic process. And you are finding recurring themes and human behaviors. It’s not a frivolous exercise, it’s psychoanalytical.
EF: On one level, it’s personal. On another it’s deeply social. No human being or brain exists within a vacuum. Every word or association you use somehow exists in other people. In making the work I’ve become aware of this desire to find symmetry, an ease of progression from one image to the next. This impulse is super powerful, and leads us into schemas, into schools of aesthetics, into genres... you can’t help but be hijacked by them. They end up flowing through you. What about your recent work? I know you’ve been out filming horses having sex in an organized fashion, not in the wild, but in a stud.
MS: I’ve been filming horse “coverings”. The horse breeding industry aligns with the art market. It’s unregulated. It’s pornographic. It’s greedy. It’s capitalist. The stallions are kept in a box and they will fuck hundreds of mares one after the other. But when I went to film, the mare wouldn’t fuck. She just wouldn’t do it. She kicked the stallion in the dick and it was bleeding. They tied her leg. They gave her dopamine. They put soft shoes like Gladiator gloves on her rear legs to prevent the impact. But even through the drugs, the tying and the slippers, again she kicked him in the dick. I’ve got striking documentation of these really aggressive scenes.
EF: Did he complete?
MS: She didn’t do it. So she becomes devalued, she’s a ‘problem mare’ because she can’t produce. The work is a documentation of industrialized reproduction. There are also close-ups, one of a mare’s vagina opening and closing, signaling her readiness to mate, and another after the stallion has ejaculated, but there’s some spillage.
EF: Cream pie...
MS: ... leaking out the penis.
EF: Oh, out of the penis. Okay.
MS: Yeah, not cream pie. But looking at the horses, it has its own microcosmic capitalistic structure. Even down to the fact that there are laws around the latest date that horses can be bred, otherwise they get unfair advantages in the races if they’re too old compared to the other horses. It’s highly controlled.
EF: It’s capitalism and it talks a lot about how finance and biology, you know, meet a person’s body.
MS: And all the men with hard hats and reins. The procedural operation destabilizes what we think of as natural and organic. I have also been working with roadkill—squirrels, magpies, pheasants—and made a stop motion 16mm music video for Daniel Blumberg shot on a Bolex. The animals reanimate after they’re killed by a car and have an orgy. It’s a Baroque fantasy.
EF: Nature’s orgy.
EF: Fucking and sucking.
MS: Queering this idea of monogamy or the couple, the animals are literally falling apart in my hands. They’re so dead, so manky that they become enmeshed. It’s gorgeous. The bodies are not single entities.
EF: I love that feeling of being enmeshed, connecting sex and death, of sexy flesh and rotting flesh, of at last having the chance of becoming one. ;-/
MARIANNA SIMNETT (b. 1986, UK) lives and works in Berlin. Her interdisciplinary practice includes video, installation, performance, sculpture and drawing. Simnett uses vivid and visceral means to explore the body as a site of transformation. Simnett has shown in major museums internationally. In 2021 Simnett will participate in The Dreamers 2021 | 58th October Salon | Belgrade Biennale, Belgrade.
ED FORNIELES (b. 1983, UK) lives and works in London, UK. Using a variety of media including the Internet, sculpture, performance, film, and social media. Fornieles merges sophisticated social manipulation with a formal approach to the Internet and pop culture. Among recent solo exhibitions and performances: Cel, Center For Contemporary Art Futura, Prague/Carlos/Ishikawa, London (2019); Seed, Carlos/Ishikawa, London (2017); Truth Table, BASEMENT ROMA, Rome (2016). Group exhibitions and performances include: New Jörg, Vienna (2020); Real Feelings, HeK (Haus der elektronischen Künste), Basel (2020); ANTI, Athens Biennale (2018); DO DISTURB. Festival non-stop, Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2016); Hack your body, upgrade your mind, Schirn Kunsthalle (Frankfurt, 2016).
All images Courtesy: the artist
Prints are available to purchase on Marianna Simnett's website.