By Pamela Cohn
On Direct Approach by Stine Marie Jacobsen
There are six steps that introduce the just-published guidebook to Danish artist Stine Marie Jacobsen’s project called Direct Approach:
Step 1 – Tell me about the most violent film scene you have ever watched? Step 2 – Tell me more about it. Step 3 – If you had to play the victim, perpetrator or bystander, which role would you choose? Step 4 – Why? Step 5 – Would you act the same way, if you were in that situation? Step 6 – Does the violence depicted reflect society today? If yes, how? If no, why not?
At once, Direct Approach is an art project as well as a practical working method on how to talk about violence and, through memories of violent scenes in film, creatively, theoretically and practically work with the themes surrounding it. Jacobsen has collected “statements of violence” shared by several different people of all ages and walks of life here in Berlin that she’s approached and asked to participate. Part of Jacobsen’s documentation work means to share this method of collaboration and discovery in building these statements and re-creations so that people can use this to interview one another about the most horrible film scene experience they’ve seen and how that scene can be remembered down to the smallest detail – focusing on how an individual identifies and understands how violence in film effects our reality.
With much humor and a light touch, Jacobsen takes on quite dark material that means to explore the human psyche using various mediums such as video, performance, photography, drawing, and writing. Key themes in all of her work are death and violence, gender archetypes, anonymity, and their portrayal and presentation in film. She has a Master of Fine Arts from the Royal Danish Art Academy and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the California Institute of the Arts. Since 2006, she’s had solo shows in Denmark, Ireland, Germany, Norway, Finland, and China. She currently works and lives between Copenhagen and Berlin.
Most recently, Jacobsen has started to expand and take the project out of Germany and into places like Bogotá, Colombia doing workshops with young people who live in very violent societies and also just recently working with displaced people or refugees from Syria here in Berlin. Power Ekroth, a Swedish art curator/critic friend who had included Jacobsen’s work in the Momentum show in Norway in 2013 had told me of her work, how profoundly moved she was by it – not just its methodologies but some of the striking and bespoke film portraits that Jacobsen recreated and filmed in collaboration with her subjects. I invited Jacobsen over to my flat one recent evening to talk more in-depth about her work and how it’s impacted her own life over the last several years:
Pamela Cohn: Jan Soldat told me that, for him, the most compelling thing about his subjects’ willingness to give very explicit and vulnerable performances for his camera, is not necessarily what they are willing to be filmed doing, so much as the exposure of the intimacy that exists in their relationships. He’s very interested in exposing this idea behind the fact that our exterior lives – no matter how “normative” or “perverse” they appear to be – are only one aspect or level of who we are.
Today, it’s pretty easy for all of us to be the creators of our own representation, that everything we put out for public consumption is a representation of some interiority, perhaps, or some hidden layer, but it’s still carefully crafted and edited – in fact can always be editable, deleted, enhanced, or re-created anew.
SMJ: Isn’t that how this works in documentary film also? I think so. I mean we have a saying in Denmark. We call it “emotional porn” when the camera penetrates too much. Maybe you might see this in a reality show where the person in front of the camera is really starting to reveal too much, in a way, and the film crew is not respectful in informing or asking them if it’s okay to film it.
PC: You’re a visual artist who uses cinema as the medium with which to communicate certain ideas around violence. I’ve talked about this so much with others over the years, how when we see certain scenes at the movies, especially when we’re young and we don’t even really know what the hell we’re looking at, they can practically rearrange our DNA, that’s how impactful they are. The experience of seeing it can be so traumatic, so shocking – and also revelatory – it takes years to process the idea that our worldviews have been strongly affected by seeing these things.
SMJ: Pedro Costa has said that we only see ourselves in a movie. I constantly have to remind people that I am not a psychologist, I’m an artist and this is my exploration. I’ll tell you, the reason why I got into this project so heavily was around this idea of the “period of silence” as the Germans call it. After the Second World War, there was just silence, so many things they couldn’t talk about. That silence was fraught with so much guilt. Coming from the south of Denmark, I grew up with grandparents who were forced to go to a German school and we grew up telling each other Nazi jokes. I came here to Berlin five years ago to live carrying with me this Nazi-joke kind of humor. We would put up ours arms and yell Heil Hitler! We did it because we could do that there and laugh our heads off about it. I mean we have Danish Nazis too and now there is knowledge that we were as bad as the Germans; not all of us were opposing what was happening but some were actually participants, as well.
But when I started to live with Germans here, there was always this difficulty of talking about race or Nazism. One day I made a joke about the fact that upon learning that there was a hidden room above the ceiling in the flat, I told my German roommate that that was so cool to have a secret space so we could hide from the Nazis. She actually flinched. I started to see “that moment you cannot name” everywhere. Merkel was saying that we were now going through one of the most violent times in German history, which also seemed odd. As you know when you move yourself into a culture not your own, you’re very open and very observant because on the surface there are just a lot of things you don’t understand. You’re keenly observant to language, to behavior, to everything. Because German is not my native tongue, I was forced to listen more and I’m still very much a listener and this is a big part of the project, to not interrupt, to not affect how a person might be remembering something in any way. Listen, wait, and then state your opinion. We all feel so connected that we think we know how someone will already finish their thought or sentence so we’re constantly interrupting and imposing our own opinion before fully hearing out the other person. I find myself often misunderstood because I don’t say things clearly enough or I assume that people know what I’m talking about, when, in fact, to them it sounds like I’m talking in riddles or only divulging snippets of what’s in my head.
When I first arrived here, my German was very direct because my vocabulary was so limited; I spoke like a twelve-year-old. So I really learned a lot from just listening. But the people I was interviewing for this project were speaking their mother tongue and it was very important for this project that the participants feel totally comfortable about speaking about their experience. So my first subjects were German and we conducted the interviews in German. Obviously, I was not as articulate but that gave me the opportunity to ask them what they meant because sometimes I literally didn’t know the meaning of a word or phrase they were using.
That turned out to be a real advantage. But sometimes they weren’t really able to explain what they meant themselves. An example of that was with the project I did with Gita Ratzinger in 2013 around the film De stilte rond Christine M (A Question of Silence) from 1982 by Marleen Gorris.
PC: It’s a hugely striking video. Are these videos made public?
SMJ: At this point, all workshop videos are public and of my original videos only three are public, the rest I still show in art spaces. They’re public through the book but I’m very careful not to give everything away that has to do with this project so people can just “eat it up.” I want to control the pace of how a text is consumed. Nowadays, that’s very important. We all know how we read and scan. My interviews with my subjects are usually three or four hours long so the videos and even the texts I’m sharing are a representation of something much more involved than what appears. That process is the most important thing for me – in other words, the project is all about these conversations; the end result is not that of the films we make together.
I worked for five years with a language psychologist and I did many different kinds of memory experiments with her, always circling back to what was being said in the moment. You are being interviewed. You don’t have a chance to carefully write and compose or think about the ways in which you want to represent yourself. It’s meant to be unguarded. She and I go over the larger text to edit it, but we don’t change adjectives or nouns. It’s compressed, of course, so that it’s readable.
PC: I’ll do the same with this conversation just as I do with all my interviews, which also sometimes last three or four hours or are part of ongoing conversations. It’s my prerogative, I feel, as the author of the interview to do that. And I’ve received very positive feedback when a subject sees himself or herself reflected in this way because I mean it to be an exploration of someone’s creative process. It’s very specific. That sometimes involves very private thoughts or details about the maker that are inappropriate for me to include for public consumption and I’m very sensitive to that even if they haven’t explicitly told me that it’s to be off the record.
SMJ: Yes, it’s out of respect, of course. And I also send that text to the interviewees and ask if it’s okay to publish it the way I’ve created it. It’s their chance to tell me then that they want to delete something they said or that they don’t want something made public. So it’s removed. This sensitivity is extremely important to me because these people trusted me. That’s why they went with me and allowed me to have this unguarded conversation.
PC: Let’s return to Gita, your very first interview, and Christine M so we can talk about a specific example. Of all the videos you shared with me, it was distinctly different somehow and contained something ineffable that made it highly watchable. And I’ve never seen the original film, by the way. But this role she chose I’m surmising is that of bystander.
SMJ: In a way. But she’s really one of the perpetrators – but the woman who “attacks or hits the least”.
PC: While watching it, I had such strong flashbacks to this American short story called “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, which was a piece of literature that forever changed me. I mean it’s like a thousand words or something – very brief – but so powerful because of what is not told. However, the depth of understanding about what’s happening is just a sucker-punch. It’s brilliant.
SMJ: This film acts in kind of the same way. When I started this project, I decided that I would meet German people in public spaces. So I literally just went to the street, just went up to people and asked them this question: What was the most violent film scene you’ve ever watched? I quickly learned to really put emphasis on the film part of the question because to go up to a German person and provoke a discussion around the topic of violence is not a good idea. That’s part of why this film scene came up about the fact that there was this aversion to perpetuating any kind of structural violence in any way. So that’s why I want to give them the opportunity to maneuver within the film scene, as they want. It can be completely metaphorical in other words through a fictive character. I mean I’m not pushing people to have some cathartic moment – that’s not what this is about at all. But in the context of talking about a film scene, they are free to associate and talk about more personal trauma. Because more times than not, they are integrated in some way.
Gita and I started talking at a screening of Tatort, a hugely popular German crime series that plays every Sunday night. It’s been running since the 70s. I’ve had many people describe the phenomenon to me as: Every Sunday night, the Germans want their kill. And the thing about Tatort is that you never see the kill. You’ve seen the violence that’s been done to the corpse, but you don’t actually see the violent act. But this can be hugely traumatic nonetheless, as well, especially to children. However it’s meant to be presented as something the whole family can watch since it’s “clean” in a way. Germans go to cafés and meet in groups to watch the show. What was this fantasy that they wanted to share without speaking about it?
I saw Gita sitting in one of these cafés one evening and we started talking about films, a common passion. I told her about this project I had conceived and I don’t think she would have participated if it hadn’t been me because it was never a wish of hers to be in front of a camera as an actor or anything. She liked the project and liked the fact that I wanted to turn it into an art piece, as well as an educational project so that we, as a society, could find another way of talking about violence. What happens to us when we watch violence in the cinema? Why do we want to watch it?
PC: The biggest vulnerability in these videos is the fact that these individuals are all alone – in other words, they are not acting with anyone. All the other “protagonists” are invisible. I had flashbacks to the trauma of improvisation classes where everything around you was invisible – only by your actions could you make others see what you were seeing and feel what you were feeling.
SMJ: Yes, there is a lot of risk. I hadn’t seen the film she started telling me about and I told her to stop telling me about it so I could watch it for myself. I then invited her to my studio a few days later. I told her, however, to not re-watch the original film because I was most interested in how she was remembering it from the first time she saw it. This is the case with all of them – it’s the memory of that experience, not necessarily how the scene might actually be in the movie.
I started out by asking her what she remembered happening right after the women kill the man in the store without exchanging a word to one another. It’s kind of a trick question in a way. She didn’t remember what happened after the killing in the scene, but told me that she thought the woman ate an ice cream cone. [laughter] Would you kill a man and then go out and eat an ice cream? But it actually fits the reasoning of the film itself. There’s a German expression that she used to describe these women, Nullachtfünfzehn Frauen, a weird expression that translates into zero 8.15 women, housewives who go shopping for negligees, a bit suppressed, not happy with their lives, dependent on their husbands, mediocre women. This is actually, by the way, the opposite of what Gita is. But this expression also has to do with the make and style of gun issued to German soldiers during the war, the 0815.
So when I’m interviewing people, I really long for this kind of detail because then they are supposed to describe the scene as kind of a film trailer and then I can film it and ask them who they would play – the perpetrator, the victim or the bystander. It’s interesting that very often there is this feeling of victimization in the cinema when someone is watching something that is terrifying or affecting in some way. They want to look away, but they can’t.
PC: This idea of violence and the ways in which we remember, as you say, feeling victimized somehow when we’re watching something violent is really interesting then in this choice that your subjects make about where they’ll position themselves when re-enacting the scene, the deeply personal reasons that may not be able to be explained no matter how many questions you ask or details you mean to evoke. In essence, we are all bystanders when we watch violence in the cinema.
SMJ: When we move to the phase of the project where these scenes from these films are shot, I don’t perceive these people as subjects so much as collaborators. Even though many of these films, such as American History X, or Misery, or Psycho have been directed by auteurs, directors with very strong visions, these people I’m working with choose the setting, the clothes they’ll wear, how it’s shot, the lighting. All of them take a very active role in creating the scene.
I will say that sometimes I feel that it’s highly problematic using these categories or points of view in this process. But it’s to have that clash with reality, about where one places oneself. Can you place yourself? Or do you not want to place yourself within these constraints? This psychological drama that they’ve described and all the moral and ethical issues surrounding that can be very complicated. These conversations would not be triggered if I didn’t impose this idea of making them choose a position. It provides a frame, like you would need for anything you’re making. So I feel justified in forcing them to choose because I insist on manipulating them this way. Some people think it’s kind of a mean question. I agree. Because it’s asking for a lot of exposure, way beyond what most feel comfortable exposing. But it’s also so important to reiterate that readers need to remember that it’s a scenario. The questions are there to offer the one that’s interviewed – as well as the reader – that space in which they choose to maneuver.
We tend to forget though that everything in our society has this kind of social design, including film. This is something I teach my students, as well: Be clever about what you’re being offered. What do they want from you? What are the questions being posed? What’s behind what you just purchased?
PC: Well, this is something, too, at the heart of these talks with Veronika, Jan and you, the fact that you are imposing something, not offering so much an opportunity for subjects to “have a voice” but the imposition of your own creative vision as part of the whole design of a film. Agency is given to the protagonists, for sure, but we also need to acknowledge as makers – which you all in your way do – that it is ultimately your material to do with what you will. What fascinates me is what happens in this kind of transaction to the author, as well, since you have your own set of questions that you may or may not share with your subjects.
SMJ: Good point, because a psychologist I talk to in Denmark who focuses on education and was helping me specifically to find a bit of funding for this as an educational tool, looked at me at one point and bluntly asked me why I was doing this project. I told him my reasons in part, but not fully and I’m not going to tell you either [laughter]. The reason for that is that it’s based on private experience. It’s not a sympathy project; it’s an empathy project. So I don’t treat anyone as a victim, even those I know who have been in war or experienced physical torture. Victims don’t want to be treated like victims again. Or on the other side as another psychologist once warned me: stay away from victims who become perpetrators, they are the worst because they can only see themselves as victims. I don’t feel guilt; I see a commonality. It’s about opening up and allowing other people to do that so we can see who we are. But none should share anything they are not ready to and this is where film scenes as metaphors “enter the picture.”
PC: I’d like to talk about this two and a half minute Misery piece and this woman, Edda Schönherz. What a presence, my god, she blew me away. And not just because that scene in that film traumatized me too – although the film version is far less gory than what happens in Stephen King’s book. And who can forget Kathy Bates? But Edda’s performance is incredible. Again, with no one to play off of, we see that guy in the bed through her eyes.
SMJ: This is a woman who was tortured in a Stasi prison for three and a half years. I met her at the Hohenschönhausen prison in the northern part of Berlin, now a memorial and research center. I contacted them via email and she’s the one who wrote me back. When I went there and she walked in, I was actually very intimidated; she’s got an overpoweringly strong presence. She also has clear opinions about movies and how violence is portrayed in them since she’s seen so much of it in her real life, seen the dirty, evil side of human beings, even family members.
One morning, she woke up and there was a group of Stasi men around her bed and she was removed from her two kids for three and a half years. She had sent all her money to friends in preparation for leaving East Berlin with her children. When I went home and did more research on her, I realized that I remembered her from television when I was growing up. In 1989, she was a TV commentator. She also wrote and published a memoir called Die Solistin – Roman einer Frau, die von Deutschland nach Deutschland wollte (The Soloist – a novel of a German woman who wanted to go to Germany). I mean, it’s kind of a Danielle Steele-type book cover, a bit tacky [laughter], but she looks amazing in a long white satin gown. This woman trusted me for some reason. And I really believe she would never have done anything like this, but she and I connected.
This is a scene from the movies that she just totally identified with, as well as knowing the book since she’s a writer herself. She doesn’t watch horror movies. But Misery is all about female violence. I want to say, at this point, that I’m divulging all this here, but when you read these interviews, the point is that the reader also indulges his or her fantasies or ideas about these people and their stories. The point is really not to tell too much about their backgrounds so there is a kind of easy context at hand. It limits the reading if you know their age, their profession, and other details of their lives. But in Edda’s case, she’s seeing the scene as a man caught by a normal woman who no one would ever expect to be that violent. In her interview, she describes the people who caught her and tortured her – they, too, were normal people whom one would never think had this kind of violence in them. But they did. In a way, she compares Kathy Bates, or the character of Annie Wilkes, to this kind of next-door neighbor, a person she never would have suspected would have been her captor and torturer. When I interviewed her, I still felt her anger and when I very timidly asked her what role she would take if we filmed something, she said to me quite emphatically, “I’m never going to be a fucking victim again, never again!”. So that answered that question. We can look at this simply as a revenge thing, but I think also there is this very close identification to her perpetrator. And it’s not so much about the legacy of Stasi and all that but more about what’s happening now in Germany, or what’s happening in Denmark. It’s not so much about legacy; it’s still very present and ongoing. We have to evolve out of a “It’s this or that” mentality. It’s always much more complicated and it keeps getting more and more complicated.
PC: The thing I like best about your work and other films that are meaningful for me is that it all circles back to the individual experience and creates this kind of bridge between us as the viewer and the person or scenarios we happen to be watching up on a screen, whether it’s a representation of their own story played by the real person, or an actor giving such a nuanced performance that we relate utterly and completely to that representation. Your project is such a beautiful confluence of all of these experiences.
SMJ: In some way, I also think it’s important – and maybe this is what you’re noticing or feeling in these works… Well, to speak for myself, I will say that in my earlier work, I wanted to do to myself what I was planning on asking of others – some throwback version from Protestantism or something [laughter]. I would make myself do something for the experience of it, to see what it felt like, before I would ever ask anyone else to do it, whether it was through a video performance or what have you. Mostly I did it because I wanted to know how it felt. I, myself, wanted someone to ask those questions of me, to ask me to act out my deepest traumas as a way of processing something hidden.
Now, at this point, I really want to bring it to schools and have this shared. That was my vision for this all along but over the course of the five years I’ve been doing this project, now more than ever, that seems like a really important goal, to make this process possible for anyone that wants to try it, to create change through this kind of creative exploration. It’s been interesting, the ways in which this project has manifested, to change “bad” film scene memories through having these in-depth interviews with people willing to talk about their memories in this way and then remaking something that is solely theirs, imposed by no one else’s images or ideas of how it should be. We can all re-write our own histories as many times as we like. We can re-write or re-make anything – that is the freedom of this tool I want to offer anyone who comes to it.