By José Sarmiento Hinojosa
Experimental filmmaker Jessica Sarah Rinland (Argentina, UK) has been building a personal project for at least ten years, a project that expands itself in more than fifteen short films, photography, installation and object-books. Rinland’s work covers a universe of meta-fictional representations, where the image becomes an accomplice of a documentalized fiction, an eye over personal universes and cosmos that unravel under her 16mm lens.
This particular post-narrative work questions our usual sources of knowledge to propose a new interface of understanding, dealing with our capacity of synthesis and our own method of understanding, thus bringing us closer to the subject matters the artist creates. From the realms of the absurd and comedic dealing with human nudity, to a carefully dissection of marine creatures, to how we experience art with different abilities, Rinland’s universe is one of subtle beauty and complex poetry.
Desistfilm: The narrative aspect of your films is constantly building a new structure with your images, from “Darse Cuenta”, to “Bright Waters…” How did you came across or constructed this method in which oral narration meets filmmaking in order to give birth to a new creature?
Jessica Sarah Rinland: I went to art school as a painter and photographer. I didn’t understand film as an art form until the school sent us to the TATE to review a piece of art and I encountered Jonas Mekas’ Walden. The film was playing at the back of one of the galleries in a dark space slightly cornered off. I had never seen anything like it. E The way he used his voice and narration with images and with sounds really attracted me. I think in hindsight, it reminded me of when I was younger… I grew up in the UK with Argentine parents, and every few years when we went back to Argentina my parents would record videos of me and my family. When I returned back to the UK, the only thing that I would watch would be these videos – I didn’t really like cartoons – the one time my mom tried to take me to the cinema, I cried… I liked staying home watching our videos. There was something interesting I think, when watching Walden or other Jonas Mekas films – they do something similar than those videos. Maybe not necessarily with the narration, because my parents didn’t narrate the videos, but the way that he was reflecting on what he had recorded, was really interesting to me.
So, I think that’s where it all started, and then from then on I have had other interests including instructional, educational films from the 1930’s – when the BFI and British Pathé were making educational films that would be shown before news reels in the cinemas. There’s something very interesting about the authority of that voice, ‘above’ the image. In the case of these films the voice is with the image, but for me it’s more interesting when the image and voice are separate and perhaps sometimes they coincide. The separation allows the viewer to escape into their own imagination. In the past few years I’ve started using text as an addition layer. Cinema allows you to use these multiple layers which other forms of art don’t, necessarily.
Desistfilm: Marine creatures, such as whales or porpoises seem to be an important element for part of your work. The whale as a memory in its fossil shape, the porpoise, being dissected and captured in a “brakhage-esque” way, the installation form of “We account the whale immortal…” What is about this creature that was important enough for you to decide working with it as a metaphor or image?
Jessica Sarah Rinland: I came across a stranded sperm whale in 2011, it was a male. I have been interested in animals and whales just for a while, not necessarily as a subject for my films but just out of intrigue and awe. When I encountered this whale I started talking to the vet who was performing a necropsy on the whale. I asked them why it had died and they explained multiple theories and that they were doing these tests to find out more, but as much as they tried to understand more about these whales, it was difficult to really know. They become something else when they’re on land, they even look completely different, because gravity is involved – they are flattened. When you look at the history of whales, in relation to humans, there’s an interesting lineage – you start with these drawings from the 1500’s and earlier with whales as monsters or bad omens – when you see them in the water you only see specific parts of them – it is incredibly difficult to see the whole animal on the surface, so a lot of these perceptions of whales come from that, from a specific viewpoint – form the surface.
Then, whaling begun as part of an economy: the use of oil… and then, to Greenpeace where they chose the image the image of the whale to represent their cause. This is one of the best examples of an animal became endangered due to human activity. That kind of relationship with the human and human history is really interesting to me, and the mythology behind the whales, again, they’re a difficult animal to study, so knowledge is limited, and this idea of acknowledging different types of knowledge really fascinates me, so I think that’s why whales became a motif in my work for a long time. Now I’m working on something new although it is in a way related. I will go back to it because there’s a film that I was working on 2015, in Península Valdéz, in the Argentinean Patagonia; I was working with marine biologists who study whales and I never finished the film, I never really knew what to do with it but I have ideas now and will soon work out how to finish it.
Mostly this comes from an initial place of awe, because I really like these animals. I feel that a lot of films about animals or natural history lack something… are people actually interested in these animals or they’re just the subjects for their projects? Which is absolutely fine, but to me there’s lot of films that seem to be lacking that kind of relationship that I feel quite strongly.
Desistfilm: Conditions like “the Nulepsy attack” seem to refer to this condition of mankind, which is always unable to show itself bare, naked in its emotions. How a film like Nulepsy was made and what did you want to portray with it?
Jessica Sarah Rinland: It’s difficult to me to think back, it feels like a long time ago and my memory isn’t great. It was my last film at art school and I was interested in this sort of fictional disease and I think I was interested in the idea and classification and the way that disabilities are portrayed in western society. I think that’s where the story initially came from, this kind of frustration of what is seen as normal. And then as I am in all my films, I’m interested in the absurd so, I enjoyed this kind of comedic absurdity, and there was something ludicrous about a disease that would force someone to remove their clothes.
When I was editing the film… I think I was nearly finished with it – I visited New York and I went to the Whitney Bi-annual and there was a film by Kerry Tribe called Patient HM. It’s a really brilliant 16 mm installation about this patient HM who had epilepsy, and in the fifties they did experimental surgery with his hippocampus, the memory part of the brain to try and suppress the epilepsy. They ended up… he ended up having no long term memory, and his short term memory lasted about 20 seconds. He could remember everything before the operation but he couldn’t remember anything after the surgery. He always would think that it was that day the operation took place. The film really brilliantly illustrates the idea of this 20-second memory span that he had: you have two 16mm projectors and one film going through both of them – a double screen projection of one film playing 20 seconds after the other. But when you walk into the space, the way that she’s edited and shot things, and the way that the sound works, it doesn’t allow you to immediately notice that is the same film that is showing 20 seconds after itself. HM, Henry Molaison lived in MIT – there they studied him for the rest of his life. There’s a book called “Memory’s Ghost” by Phillip J. Hilts which describes a meeting with HM. Hilts begins the book by writing about diseases and medical cases in general. There’s a paragraph in one of the chapters where he’s talking about his wife who had, I think lymphoma while she was pregnant, and she couldn’t keep her clothes on, she couldn’t have anything touching her skin, this really stood out to me because it was the subject of my film. He writes “her skin felt like electric oil”, which is a sentence I use in the film and then I went on to make another film of the same name which also played on the disease of Nulepsy.
It was a beautiful coincidence because I had kind of already made the film. I initially had a script – when watching the rushes I was frustrated with the actor’s dialogue so I wrote a voice over which used part of the dialogue. When I was writing the voice over I came across the book and installation, so it influenced the voice-over more than anything.
Desistfilm: Expression of the Sightless seems to work the purely erotic part of the senses, giving this narrative a place where the eye stops being the last and definitive witness of what art discourse should be like. This connection between the myths underlining the work, the perception of the blind man also seems to want to achieve a higher perception of art or nature. Is this idea something that is recurring when you approach a film?
Jessica Sarah Rinland: I definitely think different ways of seeing, sometimes, not always a reference to John Berger… I am interested in different forms of perception whether it is an animal or a sightless person. That is recurring in my work and it is, again, this idea, like I mentioned before in reference to whales, different ways of understanding something, different forms of knowledge. I’m curious about understanding different ways of perceiving things, whether through history, or different species, or someone who has different abilities to me. I think that’s something that’s reoccurring, especially in that I tend to work a lot with people that are in science, and I think I’m generally fascinated by this kind of obsession of finding something out. At the moment I’m working with conservators, so I’m thinking a lot about what it means for someone to be conserved, to preserve something. There’s a different way of understanding conservation when you think of it as this kind of western practice, than a more personal or pre-historic way of thinking like, for instance, my mother keeping her sweaters in individually wrapped plastic bags, or an aborigine repainting her rock paintings through generations. I think that comes from this wanting to learn from beings or people that have a different set of understandings that I do.
Desistfilm: How do you approach your performative/installation works in contrast to your short films? For example, how can a project like “Whale immortal” be a live show as well as a film, or many films, for that matter?
Jessica Sarah Rinland: With every film I think about where it is going to be shown. There are cases when I have the opportunity to go somewhere and I don’t have time to think before I shoot so I have to figure out what to do with the footage. But generally, I do have an idea… it also comes with being an artist today, constantly applying for commissions or grants to show something in particular or just to make a work.. With The Whale Immortal, it was a proposal that author Phillip Hoare and I put together for Somerset House which was under an umbrella program of the 500 anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia. So we put this proposal together, as a three-screen installation in a room that faced the Thames where three whales had swum in the 1600’s to the 21st century. When we were making that film, I was thinking very much about the space. We had a room to ourselves to show the work for three months. So, if someone wanted to revisit the space, rather than seeing the film again, wouldn’t it be exciting if they saw something different every time? That’s where this idea of randomization came up. We worked with a computer scientist, a technician who programmed three layers of images for the screen and three layers of sound: three atmospheric tracks, and multiple voice overs. So the computer would choose, for instance an atmospheric track and every so often it would choose a voice that would overlap. Some of the voices were 50 seconds, others up to three minutes long. With the images it was similar. Every group of people that viewed the film would have a different experience of seeing it- what would those conversations be like between different groups of people? This was also akin to the theme of utopia.
Nowadays I’m getting a little more frustrated by film festivals (laughs) as much as I love them as spaces for discussions and friendships. Currently I am interested in showing in spaces that have some relationship to the film I’m working on, for instance, I’m working in this project now which has to do with conservation so I am thinking about placing the film within conservation labs or equivalent spaces which are private spaces in most museums. I’m thinking about the idea of the private and the public and how the public would be able to access the private space of an institution. But that isn’t to say that I’ve stopped sending or showing my films to festival because it is one of the best platforms for viewing –my favorite cinema experiences come from sleepless festival screenings. I should be specific – my frustration comes from the having a short film – it’s very rare to find a group of films that work well together, and I think that is something that lacks in a lot of film festivals is this consideration of the group of films. There are some film festivals that do it brilliantly, but not many.
I think it is organic that I’ve started making slightly longer films because I’m beginning to use the Aaton as well as the Bolex. I have the opportunity to shoot for 11 minutes continuously rather than for 20 second. That allows me to linger longer and to move to different spaces without having to cut all the time (as much as I love cutting), and to shoot more. My ratio is pretty tight with what I film and what I use, so the films are going be getting longer. The length also comes with the project – whether an idea is suited to more time.