PEGGY AHWESH: “AN ESSAY FILM IS THE DOUBT, CONSIDERATION, SENSE OF FAILING AND THE THINKING OUT LOUD”

This entry was posted on April 13th, 2019

By Hyemin Kim

Artist Peggy Ahwesh’s work, marked by vagrancy and hybridity in its methods and subjects, has been deploying bricolage in a disquietingly reflective fashion, which would partake of the task of what one might call ‘essay-filmmaking.’ Far from a merely frivolous or adventurous exploration of different mediums and materiality, Ahwesh’s heterogeneous body of work proposes cautionary, counteractive thoughts on contemporary human and non-human conditions, primarily siding with the materiality of the deprived drifting in the shadow of automated media and imaging technologies. Whereas Ahwesh’s work is often considered in the context of feminism(s) for its enthralling gaze at women’s unattended desire and displacement, its ethical stance looks to embrace questions on the vast atrocity of the othered lives across discursive and geographic boundaries, perhaps, to the extent of undermining the artist’s own identity of an American feminist filmmaker.

In her found-footage animation videos such as Lessons of War (2014), The Blackest Sea (2017), and The Falling Sky (2017) which traverse animated sea, sky, and land, as well as outer space, Ahwesh’s pastiche-like observation of the othered achieves poignancy and criticality through the act of collaging the images of political and ecological precarity, while keeping herself rather withdrawn at first. This might seem like undoing the authorial place of essayistic filmmaking, but Ahwesh, by weaponizing her vertiginous aesthetics of ruins in her montage and sensory thrust, prodigiously evokes an urgency of sensing the planetary and topological violence and horror in the othered corners of the earth. Also, in The Kissing Point (2014), Alluvium (2015), and other works in progress, Ahwesh resumes the actual landscape shooting in the West Bank and also in Kansas by operating observational, yet wandering techniques of the artist’s improvisational filmmaking, which is in turn syncretized and unnervingly sensorized in her hollowing pace of montage and constrained gallery-based projection practices.

The following interview was conducted in person on March 25, 2019 in Brooklyn, NY, USA. It particularly discusses Peggy Ahwesh’s recent past show at e-flux (New York, NY, USA) which screened Alluvium (2015), The Blackest Sea (2017), The Falling Sky (2017), and The Star Eaters(2003) on September 29, 2018. The show happened in conjunction with the publication of e-flux’s journal (issues 92/93) of On feminism(s), and the post-screening Q & A was led by film scholar Michele Pierson. This interview, however, is separate from the e-flux’s Q & A and addresses different aspects of those selected videos and other current projects by Peggy Ahwesh.  – Hyemin Kim

 

Stills from The Star Eaters, images courtesy of the artist Peggy Ahwesh and Microscope Gallery

 

Hyemin Kim: I’d like to begin with The Star Eaters (2003) as it’s made before the others. Why did you choose to film Atlantic City? Compared to other towns where you’ve been going, how did you feel about that particular place?

Peggy Ahwesh: I’ve been going to Vegas a lot. I was going to this gambling town. It was very artificial and strange and hyped up. And then, when I went to Atlantic City, it’s just a sad version of Vegas because it was on the skids, but I just loved the despair and the sadness of the place compared to a regular city like New York – and compared to Vegas. It held so much false promise and it never fulfilled whatever the dreams that people might have for money, success, fame, nightlife, and privilege. It wasn’t going to fulfill any of those dreams. I went there to shoot places like the abandoned, drained pools and the areas cordoned off with rope, as a lot of it was shot off season. Sun was gone and the only people around were the hangers-on who had nowhere else to go. The seedy underside of the city was palpable and the economic depression at that time was glaringly evident and in an absurd relationship to the mythic image of money and glamour that the city wanted to advertise – the poverty and depression there could not be masked. It was even more despairing than it might have been if I’d gone there in the middle of the summer.

In fact, I shot Atlantic City twice. In 1998, I made this failed project, Lies and Excess, and I went back there and made The Star Eaters. (Lies and excess, never finished, exists as a fragment and I showed it in Lithuania in the summer of 2018 as part of a program about unfinished films, along with The Star Eaters. The program was called Future Perfect:  a talk by Peggy Ahwesh of made and unmade films by Ahwesh, with historical framework from Maya Deren’s Witches Cradle and Ken Jacobs’s Perfect Film) In The Star Eaters, I was interested in women and transgression (and that radical phenomenal subjective experience). In Particular, the idea of women’s acting out outside of the cultural parameters and the risk that involves. And then, on the other side of risk, there is as we call insurance which is a safety net against risk. I was thinking of it not only in terms of psychology but also in terms of economic transgression. In The Star Eaters, there’s glamour of taking the risk and playing with these opposing themes of risk, gambling, transgression, and security. Gamblers know how much they can spend because they know they’re going to lose it and they have a great weekend and it all feels like they’re taking all kinds of crazy chances and they’re really outside the box, and then at the end of the weekend they pack up and go home. It’s like not only the American dream but also a failed version of the American dream. And it’s like this kind of psychology of being a member pushing the boundaries, and then falling back into place. Humans are strange.

 

Still from The Star Eaters, images courtesy of the artist Peggy Ahwesh and Microscope Gallery

 

Hyemin Kim: Why were you interested in illustrating women’s abandonment in Atlantic City? Also, what were you trying to speak through lesbian or at least quasi-lesbian companionship? I feel their relationships are somewhat mirroring, longing – yet separated.

Peggy Ahwesh: I liked this odd couple of the older woman (aka “Jackie Smith”) and the younger woman (starring Alex Auder). I thought that was really provocative. The older woman is what one might call a ‘card shark.’ I just wanted to flip over the heterosexual term because usually there’s an older man with a younger woman. I thought it would be really interesting to have this older woman with a younger woman and to see how those roles play out because in some places they’re equal and in some places the older woman seeems in charge and in some places the younger woman is super erotically charged, especially when she dances for the older woman at the bar. But on another level, you know, there’s a kind of backstory of the movie: the old woman had a crush on that younger woman. So I put them in the movie together so they could have fun together and enjoy each other, because they had pretty good chemistry. Yeah, I mean, that kind of worked out.

Hyemin Kim: Are they famous actresses?

Peggy Ahwesh: No, they’re not. The younger woman was a yoga teacher and the older woman is a filmmaker and well-known poet and she is in other movies of mine: Bethlehem (2009) and The Ape of Nature (2010). I really should make a video again with her.

Hyemin Kim: Can you tell me why you decided to cite those literary authors who were very unorthodox in America at that time? I was wondering how you felt about their language or literature because I find the way you adapt literature and create some artistic tension inside of your film very unique. Personally, I really like the citation (read by Jackie Smith) in that scene when Jackie was in the water. “When I was a little girl, I loved the sun. I used to shut my eyes and let the sun shine bright red my eyelids. The sun was fantastic. All explosions and blood. And from the blood of the sun to the blue of the sky at noon, you could lose your mind in the stars.”

 

Stills from The Star Eaters, images courtesy of the artist Peggy Ahwesh and Microscope Gallery

 

Peggy Ahwesh: That quote is from Georges Bataille. Yeah, that was beautiful, and I think she’s a good reader of the text. Since the 80s, I’ve been taking that literary process. Maybe my example of this process is always She Puppet (2001), but I think it also applies to The Star Eaters. In filmmaking, I’ll have an idea and I’ll work on some movie plot line of some kind and maybe I’ll go location scouting and maybe I’ll shoot a bunch of stuff. But then at some point I go back to the books and I read things. And it’s almost like I need the background of the story that would be in a more philosophical place. I’ll go read and the particular text that struck my fancy. It’s almost like doing research in reverse because I’ve often already shot the movie. Like in She Puppet, I already had collected all the footage and then I started reading. Or, like Nocturne (1994), I shot the movie and then I read a bunch of the text. I shot some more (footage) but I felt my way intuitively through different authors and fought to find things that have a nice resonance with the footage. I like working with some texts that are complicit with my movies and that bring out some of the ideas that would otherwise remain more embedded. And I like having that serious relationship with the dead theory guys – and, sometimes, with theory women. It’s a different attack on the material. I piece them together more like an essay film. So, my work can be in relationship to different theoretical traditions.

In The Star Eaters, there’re Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot, and this book called Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss (1999) by these brothers, Frederick and Steven Barthelme. They were writers and college professors and they got addicted to gambling and they wrote a book about it. I love that book and it situated, like Bataille’s and Blanchot’s texts, this sort of real-world context of degraded and abysmal relationship to money, and they got addicted to the hole. It’s like an abjection, and I thought it went well with my characters who were on the skids in Atlantic City. I’m usually looking for a certain kind of text which is neither too specific and nor too vague. I like the text that has a lot of ideas in it, but it’s open enough to be in a movie – rather poetic. For example, Blanchot’s text is descriptive of the state of being, and they’re very material at the same time. They’re very heady. You know, there’s just a rich, very rich literary resource. For a number of projects, I read literature not  on purpose. It just kept happening. But then there’s one like She Puppet (2001), which is a slightly different model. I planned on making this movie about a CGI constructed figure of a video game, so I wanted the text to relate to this virtual artificial entity. So, there was a different direction to define my text for that and I settled on three texts for She Puppet (2001).

Hyemin Kim: Let’s talk about The Blackest Sea and The Falling Sky. Continuing your found-footage filmmaking strategy that you deployed in The Color of Love (1994) and Beirut Outtakes (2007) and more recently, – and stylistically similarly – in Lessons of War (2014), you’ve made videos by assembling animation footage found on YouTube. How did you find it? Did you use any search words for those apocalyptic imageries?

Peggy Ahwesh: It’s curious, because what happened is that I was teaching a class of reenactment at Bard College, and I had a very elaborate syllabus and wanted to show a bunch of stuff in the first week. So I was just poking around YouTube, like scavenging or thrifting and it just happened. There were two things that I found. One which was there, was a guy who worked for JetBlue who freaked out on the plane because someone’s bag hit him on the head, and he cursed out the passengers and he opened and went down the emergency chute and left the plane, and then the guy got fired. There was a video these people made about the incident and I just found it online. And the other thing, which is probably more interesting as this, was about the incident with Trayvon Martin, a young black man who was killed in Florida by this guy George Zimmerman who was let off the hook by the jury because Florida had this law that you can kill people if you think they’re attacking you or something like that. But that unjust incident had been all over the news. And this animation company reconstructed it and made the video. I’m not sure how I found it. I was just poking around for things, but those two things struck my fancy and I was like “who made these videos?” But yeah, I got very interested in them. I showed them to my class and then I did further research and I watched hundreds of them and  a lot of those very short, but I started to collect them because I found them really interesting. Then I went to make Lessons of War. I would just go through all their videos until I found something that matched what I needed. Or I could put in ‘Gaza’ as a search term and get all their videos made about Gaza, along with just anything that came up with that search, as their search engine is terrible. I just get all kinds of bizarre and contingent stuff: the second you put in ‘Gaza’ one comes off, as like, someone making ice cream in Indiana. But I spent hours and hours trying to figure out a most effective word to get something that was useful to me. I used ‘hibernation,’ ‘outer space,’ ‘tunnels,’ or ‘drug trade.’ (I got the tunnel footage with the phrase ‘drug trade’ because people dig tunnels to get their drug trade done, like going from Mexico to the US.) Some of them aren’t even from Gaza, but then I started using their little search engine which wasn’t very good. Still, I just collected hundreds of videos and I made Lessons of War and then went on to make a piece that I’ve never shown, which is about Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Then I made The Blackest Sea and The Falling Sky. And I made two other little short pieces with that footage.

There’s something I guess I find obviously deeply intriguing to me about that kind of material and that neutrality of that material. It’s just enough formation of the figures to get the idea you kind of know across, there’s not a lot of judgment: they’re just telling what happened. These materials, unlike some other animation material online, don’t have a lot of personality. And I like that it doesn’t have the artist’s touch. It’s bland. I can give it other sets of meanings that are not hindered by someone else’s sort of personality on top of it. (Well, The Color of Love (1994) is a found footage movie and that’s not bland at all, it’s a sex movie. Still, there’s something anonymous and it’s neutral in that; it’s this porno film. That’s anonymous and it has different qualities, but it has a similar register.) As you know, there is a long tradition in experimental film to recut-recycle-repurpose-reclaim images to comment on history and to shift perspective. I like to do that with those materials.  Also, I like the generic quality to the animation – kind of simplified and schematic/reductive- making it easy to recast into my own point of view. In any way, I have collected hundreds of Taiwanese news clips, and have used them as a vocabulary to build several short videos that respond to current events in my own subjective, emotional way about war (in Lessons of War) and about fear, citizenship and surveillance (in The Blackest Sea and The Falling Sky.) I spent months editing tiny bits of often 3 or 4 second shots into the weave of the finished videos.

 

Stills from The Blackest Sea, images courtesy of the artist Peggy Ahwesh and Microscope Gallery

 

Hyemin Kim: So, in terms of leaving commentaries, even though those footages were chosen because they are neutral and anonymous, I can certainly feel there’s a very strong rhythm, a forceful intention and compelling vignettes in your videos, which I believe come from your signature editing style, which is apparent throughout all of your work. There’s something great about the craft of editing in your work. And that editing gives me some sub-stories I would say that are discernible rather than mere nuance. Do you finish those complex narratives before you edit?

Peggy Ahwesh: Thank you, I love to edit. No, I don’t have a predetermined narrative before I edit. It’s like, the idea hits me as I was cutting. Chunks of edits grow, and I get narrative ideas. I get ideas when I’m in the middle of something. I’m not one of those who has an idea and then write a script, like a lot of traditional filmmakers. I like to shoot and then I edit and then I go back and shoot some more and then I go talk to people, or then go to the library and try to get more footage and I’m figuring out what I’m missing, and then I’ll go interview someone or something like that. That’s how I’ve always done it. It’s very inefficient. And sometimes you can’t finish as you can’t find your way out of the hole. Maybe in those two (The Blackest Sea and The Falling Sky) narratives might stand out, but I like to let what I like float. It’s not a narrative. It’s not a fiction, but emotionally it’s like the way a Bruce Conner movie triggers emotional connection, that weird hollow feeling, feeling of something missing. I was kind of trying to conjure Bruce Conner in some ways. Not only in those films. Bethlehem is dedicated to Bruce.

Hyemin Kim: I particularly get that connection when I see imagery related to ecological turmoil.

Peggy Ahwesh: Yeah, there’re references to things about climate change. I don’t mean that there are no facts like them. What’s great about found footage movies is they’re not supposed to be holistic. I have a kind of narrative and I have something I stole from the Taiwanese YouTube channel and I have that emotional music (eg. Passacaglia for Organ and Strings, K. 11 by Ellis. B. Kohs in The Blackest Sea, the organ mournful music I captured from the radio during my drive) and I have things about climate change, natural and meteorological disaster and refugees – and they may not come together, but that’s okay.

Hyemin Kim: Do you think it’s related to your kind of expectation about certain spectatorships?

Peggy Ahwesh: Yes, I hope so. I hope people get that. I mean, I remember someone saying to me that the footage was kind of ugly and I was like well, yeah, okay. I can take that. Yeah, it’s not prettified. It’s not made beautiful and that’s not my party, but I like that, that’s what I mean. That’s that sort of idea of the distance and kind of neutrality, and letting it just be what it is with all my various manipulations of the material, but you still can read the original layers even though you never saw those things on YouTube or whatever. I’m not eliminating it.

Hyemin Kim: I was wondering where you began your critical study or exploration of new media as you’re referring to CGI surveillance, displacement, and ecological precarity, as I just mentioned.

Peggy Ahwesh: I think my interest in critical study began when I was in college. I read a lot of anthropology and psychology in Antioch College, which is a small school in Ohio, but I studied with Tony Conrad, Janis Crystal Lipson, and Paul Sharits, who were my film teachers. And I was happy to have those interesting people in my life. But Tony was always very heady, everything was about something else. It wasn’t just like, you could watch the movie, and want to remake it and talk about lighting and techniques. It was always bigger issues of the philosophy of the background of the film or whatever thing stood for the symbolism. So, I think very early on, when I was a teenager I began to listen to Tony Conrad and he would tell us about more than the film. Even if it was in film noir, there may be Tony’s talk of the history of electrification. I think that was my orientation since I was very young.

Also, I’m amazing at making a mess of it: understanding it but using it as artistic means for my end. I’m trying to say there are artists’ means to get to an end where you take something, and you screw with it or you manipulate it or you kind of misrepresent it, or there’s some kind of betrayal of some material. But you know things that you appreciate for their intensity and scholarly brilliance, and then you’re not messing with them to be frivolous. You’re messing with them to shape them closer to ‘my’ own sensibility or what I feel I need to say. For example, I’ve been very influenced by Bataille’s ideas, but I think practically speaking I have misunderstood much of Bataille for example, and the good news is, I’m not a scholar who has to have footnotes and has to relate their ideas to the rest of the body of the field. I don’t have to do this, and if I had to I probably couldn’t, yeah. I’m actually one of these other people that can make something like Martina’s Playhouse (1989). And a scholar might say the film is so interesting because it is about Jacques Lacan and sort of the growth stages of children, how children come into the symbolic realm. Then I’m like great “you got it.” I can say that I can explain it but am not able to justify it within Lacanian literature. Yeah. That’s not my job. Going back to Bataille, he’s a product of his era and I forgive him for that and I’m a product of my era. So the limitations are there. I sometimes quote Bataille ironically. I’m not creating a Bataille cult.

Hyemin Kim: That makes sense to me. Bataille can be interesting in many ways, but he’s situating the feminine and related metaphors in an European theological context and I don’t think it works for your intention and artistic styles.   

Peggy Ahwesh: Yes, reading Bataille correctly is not my task.

 

Stills from The Falling Sky, images courtesy of the artist Peggy Ahwehs and Microscope Gallery

 

Hyemin Kim: To change the subject, speaking of ‘cutefication’ in these found-footage animation videos, how do you blend that kind of cuteness with the horror or critical warning of the disaster?. I understand the strategy of cuteness that helps people feel immersed to the imagery that you are exporting. But, at the same time, it can dilute critical response. Even when I see these works, even though animals and children are dying on the beach, they still look cute. How do you redirect it to critical horror?

Peggy Ahwesh: You know about this different kind of montage from Sergei Eisenstein’s. He had these five different techniques and levels of m. Metric, rhythmic, tonal, and overtonal ones. And the highest one is the so-called intellectual montage. If you’re implicated in the viewing of the movie you know that you’re seeing these images and they have these shot-to-shot relations. But also, you become part of it. I think that’s what he might call an intellectual montage and I’m assuming we all do that now. Yeah, everybody’s very self-conscious about watching movies, and they’re very artificial and they can see the editing and they know what they’re watching, and they bring a criticality to it. I’m leaning on the fact that people are participating in intellectual montage. So I always say to my students at shooting you can be stupid. You can go out and shoot and you can be like “I’m gonna go shoot it whatever it is,” but in editing you have to be smart because through editing you’re actually making this participatory meaning of the video. So you have to learn how to control the material in editing as much as you can. So that’s where Eisenstein’s brilliance comes in. He was able to make these really amazing connections, you know, political connections by this different editing strategies you came up with.

Hyemin Kim: Speaking of criticality, how do you relate these three works to feminism? More specifically, why is horror (in presenting war and displacement) important in your feminist filmmaking?  

Peggy Ahwesh: I love horror and I think it’s productive for women to engage with it.  I certainly am against actual physical violence towards women but the experience of hyper-real, fantastical and often absurd scariness and volatility in the movies is something to be experienced -the over-the-top extreme that gets the heart racing. It’s not for everyone, and of course one has to protect oneself from images that are disturbing – I do that as well – but if the horror film can be your roller coaster ride of images and sound then the ride for women can be exhilarating. It aligns with my love of genre -the tropes of the horror film are recognizable – the framework is set to craft the excitations in the drama- so one can go along for the ride with some sophisticated knowledge and awareness of what is going to transpire as the film goes along.

Feminism has evolved over the decades and I would say that I have practiced many feminisms in my life- with cultural meanings that shift at various historical junctures. To put it in my own terms, without too much emphasis on the label, I would say I have always featured women’s identity and agency in my films:  A female perspective with performers that show the uncodified world of women and as a stand-in for my own experience. I twist theory to suit my purposes and make subjective the rules of filmmaking and representation – various techniques that are a critique of the dominating (patriarchal) mode in support of women in their reign, pleasure and control of the film screen.

 

Still from Alluvium, image courtesy of the artist Peggy Ahwesh and Microscope Gallery

 

Hyemin Kim: I hope we can talk about traveling and filmmaking. Do you travel often to shoot? How do you relate traveling, wandering or drifting to your filmmaking? Is there any political or critical position that you’d like to pursue through in the place where you are at the time?

Peggy Ahwesh: I love to travel. I love to go places I’ve never been to, I love going to a place for the first time. I usually have to go back many times if I’m going to shoot somewhere, because I often don’t get it right when I shoot several times. But I always shoot and then I go back and forth for many times. A lot of stuff I make (if I’m making) lasts me a couple of years. While I worked with found footage I kind of forgot how to shoot in some ways. Then I shot this landscape movie in Kansas which was fun. I feel like I’m working myself back into shooting everything, like in the old days. I had a Super 8 camera that I loved, with it I could shoot anything, anywhere. I like the pixel camera, I had a video camera that could take a mini DV tape. I don’t have a camera that I really love now. I need to find a new instrument. You have to like your camera and it has to be your friend. I don’t quite have that relationship now, but the thing Keith (Sanborn) and I shot together in Kansas is mainly landscape stuff. The last couple of years we were shooting in Kansas weather and landscape, shooting with a drone. I’m editing that right now. It’s very neutral and very different. It’s very graphical and kind of flat and not really what I’m comfortable with because I’m not sure if it’s interesting. It’s a little bit like the big screens from The Kissing Point on the back wall. But I’m not quite sure how it’s going to look in the gallery.

Hyemin Kim: So, speaking of traveling, Alluvium is very much about traveling.  

Peggy Ahwesh: Yeah, that’s a good example, because most of the footage in that movie is from that route  I took from Ramallah (where I lived), going to my job in Abu Dis. So I knew this stretch of territory in this particular area on these little towns that were on the route extremely well and I shot them many times. I had a ton of footage and I just took the shots that I liked. The Deadman (1989), on the other hand, I shot everything once because it was this weird sex movie and you can’t ask people to repeat a sex act on the floor. That took about 45 minutes and I didn’t ask them to repeat it. So they’re totally different.

Hyemin Kim: So, in terms of the West Bank, when did you start traveling to Palestinian territory? I know you are half Syrian (since your father is Syrian) so you started visiting the Middle East at some point. When was it?

Peggy Ahwesh: It is 1980s. Yeah, I’ve been to Jerusalem in the 1980s and I was in the West Bank. During the second Intifada and then in and out a few times, but I went to Syria a couple of times and I’ve been to Turkey, Morocco, Jordan and then Palestine. In more recent years, I went there in 2009 with my friend Emily who’s a midwife from Pittsburgh, and she was there to do some midwifery sort of education with women in these different villages. I went with her and hung out with her and then I went back in 2011 to teach in Bard in Abu Dis and then on and off since.

Hyemin Kim: When did you begin shooting in the Middle East?

Peggy Ahwesh: In 2011. I also have some great footage from Egypt. I never made a movie about it. But it’s a 16 mm film. And I have another project that I may do in the West Bank. There’s this naturalist guy who runs a little ecology station inside of it. He’s in Bethlehem and he grows plants. He’s interested in this sort of Palestinian native plants. The land is part of the University, but I think he has to raise his own money, but he has these little gardens where he grows stuff and then he takes students out at night and they look at it. I studied bats, nightlife bugs and birds. Yeah, he’s an amazing guy. I never shot him, but this kind of something that I’d like to do. He’s very active politically and also a naturalist.

Hyemin Kim: That’s very cool. Perhaps relevantly, can you tell me a little more about the title of Alluvium? I believe its title used to be Neither Day Nor Night.

Peggy Ahwesh: Yeah. I thought that was too long and clumsy. ‘Alluvium’ is a unique word. I like that word ‘alluvium.’ It refers to the soil. It means rich soil. Israel has a lot of irrigation, but the alluvial soil is in the West Bank. That’s one of reasons Israelis want to take it. Israelis also took the water (as Palestinians love to dig wells) underneath the border of the West Bank and they siphoned it into Israel. So, you’d be in the West Bank and it’s like this parched desert and then you’ll come to the edge of it, you know, like near Jericho where there’s a farm land. There are huge palm trees, almond trees, and date trees and big orchards all along. Then, when you look on the side of the Palestinians, it’s completely dry. Israelis just sucked the resources out of the soil. So that’s why I called it ‘Alluvium,’ but it also references the vampires who need their soil. Palestinians need their original soil, their homeland to survive. So, it has a double meaning.

 

Stills from Alluvium, images courtesy of the artist Peggy Ahwesh and Microscope Gallery

 

Hyemin Kim: I feel Alluvium is an essay film though it defies the definition. Do you agree? What is your own philosophy in creating an essay film?

Peggy Ahwesh: I suppose the film is an essay – if that means that I am thinking out loud about a variety of ideas and showing a contrast of footage that has associative, provocative connections, served to the viewer as the film unfolds.  The difference between a documentary and an essay film is the doubt, consideration, sense of failing and the thinking out loud that one can do in an essay film that would be unacceptable in a documentary trajectory.

Hyemin Kim: Alluvium‘s quotes are from multiple books (Jalal Toufic’s Vampires, Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in time, Jean Genet’s Prisoner of love and Judith Butler’s Precarious life) that seem to be circling around the Palestinian experience of displacement and disembodiment. Can you tell me more about the citing process?

Peggy Ahwesh: The text is all quotations from those various authors.  I read the Jalal Toufic book many years ago and was struck by the exactitude of his portrayal of the vampire saga in parallel with the life of the Palestinians. It was a beautiful metaphor even though the vampire tale is dragged off the shelf so often -for me there can never be too many vampire stories!  I find the mutations of the original endlessly fascinating.  Living in Ramallah several years back, I found myself wandering and touring around with the ideas from Toufic reverberating in my head like a soundtrack.

So, in Jalal Toufic’s book, I was interested in this idea of the undead. The undead is unresolved. It’s like they’re in purgatory because they’re floating between worlds. They’re not really dead. In Alluvium, there’re all these metaphors related to a quest for Palestinian’s original soil, a connection to the homeland. Also, I implied the experience of passing a checkpoint threshold from Palestine into Israel. You have to be invited in and you have to get a little piece of paper that says you’re allowed to enter. There’s the threshold where the vampire has to be invited. So the checkpoints in the West Bank kind of operated in a very similar way. Also, the undead metaphorizes the return of the repressed, their right for return. But Toufic was interested in the vampire movies but I was interested in the Palestinian actual landscape –mobility, soil, and the undead, and the threshold there.

Hyemin Kim: You already mentioned the return of the repressed. I feel that in the video there is a strange sense of time. I feel you deliver some kind of futuristic or circular sense of time to give some sense of hope. I think I read that in the imagery of golden mosques. Are you suggesting any kind of hope in Alluvium?

Peggy Ahwesh: I don’t think so. Sorry. I don’t really think so. I think I’m just describing a situation and I don’t really have the answer to it. I mean, I end on this quarry right near the Qalandiyah checkpoint, which is massive now. It’s like a little town but there’s this quarry that mines limestone, there’s this white powder all over. But there’s no laws about this, there’s no ecological concern. There’s no health policy. And this white powder is over everything. So, in the movie I end with that, it’s like lace on the ground that’s covered with white powder. Yeah. It’s very dark and unregulated. Their landscape is deeply in trouble.

Hyemin Kim: Can you talk about the idea of ‘kissing point’ which I believe you embedded in Alluvium in addition to The Kissing Point (2014)?   

 

Still from The Kissing Point, image courtesy of the artist Peggy Ahwesh and Microscope Gallery

 

Peggy Ahwesh: That’s like, you want to make a deal with your enemy, and you have to get close enough, but you’re not going to kiss but you have to come to some agreement. And it’s like a relationship. So you have to get close enough to almost kiss them. It’s a kissing point, but you don’t actually go through with it because the way society is structured. The Arabs and the Israelis never see each other because they have separate roads. I borrowed the idea from Eyal Weizman’s book, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (2012).

Hyemin Kim: In the post Q&A with scholar Michele Pierson at the e-flux show, Pierson interpreted the sense of drift in your work including Alluvium in the context of the feminine and its libidinal time. Pierson read the relocation of the idea of drift in relation to the feminine in your work.  Did you mean to address any feminist thought or even any signifier of the feminine in Alluvium?

Peggy Ahwesh: Some people try to read feminisms in all of my works, but I think that will be overreading it in this case as I don’t necessarily think these political landscapes are feminine. Landscape is not like a part of female bodies – not even metaphorically.

Hyemin Kim: I see, I agree. I think seeing landscape as the feminine or feminine corporeality would be problematic as it might symbolically imply both the landscape and the feminine as something to be extracted.

Peggy Ahwesh: Yes.

 

Still from Alluvium, image courtesy of the artist Peggy Ahwesh and Microscope Gallery

 

Hyemin Kim: Now I’d like to talk about the scene where stray dogs were sitting on the trash mountain, which is my favorite scene in the video though it would be improper to say something as ‘favorite’ considering the dire subject of the video. Are there many animals like that? 

Peggy Ahwesh: Yes, that’s a great shot. In the West Bank, there’re wild dogs. They live in there.  You can see them in The Kissing Point too. And everything is a pretty hard topic but yeah, there’re animals – dogs, cats, sheep, cows, camels, horses … everywhere in the West Bank. It’s a very compressed society because there’s so little land and there’s so little mobility. There’re all kinds of animals and each one has to find their own life in this dense land. Everything’s on top of each other. They have to find their own relationship to humans and humans are part and parcel of the environment. Yes, there are so many dogs. If you drive it on the road, there’re going to be some dogs covered in white limestone stuff. They bark at you and you throw them some food or something. They live there in the corner.

Hyemin Kim: I also remember the dead horses in one scene of Alluvium.  

Peggy Ahwesh: There were dead horses dumped in a bus stop on the side of the road and then they were there for several days. They were trash.

Hyemin Kim: A bus stop?

Peggy Ahwesh: There’s no such thing as an ordinary bus stop, but it’s where the bus turns and there’s a big billboard, you could get on the bus there. I went past it and I saw those horses, there’s a trash dump and people just dump the horses. I went back then I went back later the day, they were still there. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe they were still there.

Hyemin Kim: Here’s the last question for today. What are you working on lately?

Peggy Ahwesh: I do this, like my process, as I mentioned earlier. I collect materials and I’m thinking about different things and then it takes me a while to figure out what I’m working on, and then I surprise myself and find myself working on something. It’s a deeply intuitive thing. I wish I could control it, but it doesn’t really work that well, but I have this.

So, I started to make 3D models of these temples in this archaeological site of Palmyra in Syria that got destroyed by ISIS in 2015. It’s too big of a project for me. I’m not sure what I’m doing. It’s a place Keith (Sanborn) and I have been to in 1990. Currently I’m working on a project that’s about that incident, and people have made a virtual Palmyra since then because a lot of the stuff got destroyed. So we’ve been working on that 3D modeling.

There are a couple of storylines intersecting in this project. A very famous author, Agatha Christie, went on these digs in the Middle East, and she was married to an archaeologist. She also wrote a book called Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) which is about this group of Europeans who are on this dig in Iraq and Syria, so I’m kind of using her text in looking for murder mystery around this guy who got murdered by ISIS. So, the idea is that there is a dig and that is an archaeological site. And there are all these kinds of interacting layers, but I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it. I’m not sure what the shape of it is yet.

 

Hyemin Kim lives between Brooklyn, USA and Seoul, South Korea and writes on experimental cinema & literature with a focus on ecology, non/humans and queer studies.