The Days of the Commune: A Conversation with Zoe Beloff
Zoe Beloff and I first met in early 2014 through the Open Sessions program at the Drawing Center. Over the following months we saw each other frequently, discussing the common themes that appear in our works, the differences and similarities in our approaches to art and filmmaking and the issues we both struggle with in our various projects. The following conversation took place in early July in Zoe’s studio in an apartment she shares with her husband and collaborator, Eric Muzzy. Zoe was preparing for her upcoming show at PARTICIPANT INC., and the small room was crammed with large pieces of cardboard, on which human-size figures of the characters from The Days of The Commune were sketched with acrylic.
Zoe Beloff lives in New York City. She works with a wide range of media including film, projection performance, installation and drawing. Each project aims to connect the present to past so that it might illuminate the future in new ways. Her work has been featured in international exhibitions and screenings; venues include the Whitney Museum, Site Santa Fe, the M HKA museum in Antwerp, the Pompidou Center in Paris and Freud’s Dream Museum in St. Petersburg.
Tatiana Istomina: Your exhibition at PARTICIPANT INC. opens this weekend; you will be showing your film The Days of the Commune along with drawings, objects and props. How do you see the relationship between different mediums in your projects?
Zoe Beloff: I think of them as different ways of expressing an idea. I call my work installation because it’s a cacophony of objects that together express various ideas, stories, and contradictions, and I am particularly interested in the relationship between drawing and moving images. Cinema often grows out of drawings; in film school I was taught to make story-boards and use them for making films, so from the start the two media speak to each other, each in its own language.
TI: I also work with different mediums, but I do not mix them as freely as you do. And I often find myself in a situation when the medium I choose for a particular project takes over and drives my work away from what I had in mind. It is especially the case with painting as it’s so physical and so accident-prone.
ZB: So is movie making! You can’t control the world, and quite often the world takes control of you. This is one reason I like working with found footage: you cannot dictate it, you can enter into a dialogue with it, but it will always assert its own personality. I like to help other people speak – people from history or anonymous characters I discover in old home movies and discarded industrial films. When shooting a narrative film you also work with people, actors and assistants, who add their own input. So you are a part of the world, rather than a private genius in your studio…
TI: But you are both, aren’t you? Some of your projects are done in a studio, such as small-scale drawings or tiny videos. I think of your Beyond project – it feels very intimate.
ZB: Yes it was! Beyond was a private world and yet…every Sunday I would go to flea markets and come back with stuff – small objects, films – that would dictate the movie of that week. There was an element of chance, of unpredictability. Plus I was reading a lot and that is another kind of dialogue: Walter Benjamin or Charles Baudelaire are asserting their personalities and I feel I am talking to them. The whole idea in this project was to go back into the past every week, discover something and report back. I was living alone then and that virtual world was my whole life; Ihad a teaching job during the day and at night in my apartment the movies would appear…
TI: How did the project start?
ZB: It began as a website in 1995. On the site, I promised a new movie every week – that gave me a terrible deadline, but a great impetus. As a filmmaker you can never make one movie a week – it is ridiculous! But I felt a duty to my imaginary public and I made a movie each week. The only way to see it was online, and that for me was mysterious. I did not know if or who was looking at it. Later on, when Beyond was exhibited as an interactive project, it felt as if people were reading my diary. It was almost embarrassing, because I really lived so fervently and so completely in that world. I don’t think I’ve ever done as much, may be because now I am less isolated, and have a husband, and talk to real people… Then I was alone and at night in my apartment I would stage performances for the webcam. You can still see them, here http://www.zoebeloff.com/beyond/
TI: Did you try to find out whether Beyond had an online audience?
ZB: No, I didn’t want to know – I preferred it to be a mystery. But people started to email me, and pretty early on I realized there were people watching, programmers in Palo Alto with nothing to do late at night, or people in art schools…people started to personally get in touch with me.
TI: It seems that some of your works have very specific audiences. There is, for instance, a huge difference between a film audience and an art audience, and you are working with both.
ZB: Yes, and this raises a lot of questions. As an undergraduate I went to art school in Scotland, where I grew up. It was an old-fashioned school where they taught us to make tasteful paintings to sell and hang on the walls of the Scottish bourgeoisie. I knew right away that that was absolutely not what I wanted to do. The idea of making tasteful works that go over the living-room couch put me right off. Which was a shame, because I kind of threw the baby out with the bathwater. I decided I wasn’t going to exhibit drawings, although it is a medium I love very much. Then, as a graduate student, I went to a film school and my classmates were planning to work in Hollywood. As a commercial filmmaker you are expected to have a vast audience and cater to their tastes. The fact that film is a popular medium appealed to me, but I knew right away I was not out cut out to make coming of age comedies. And I was not interested in the classical avant-garde film, which is talking to a very, very small audience. I want to make films because I am a storyteller, and I want to make artwork and to express ideas that can be accessible to people. And this, I think, has driven my odd-ball trajectory, which is outside the mainstream art world as an unclassifiable filmmaker/artist. I don’t have a gallery, and in the last ten years I’ve worked mainly in nonprofit exhibition spaces, many of them in Europe.
The only project that I made for a specific audience is Dreamland: Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society and its Circle 1926 – 1972. I was invited to do a project to celebrate the centenary of Freud’s visit to the Dreamland Amusement Park in 1909, and my installation was exhibited at the Coney Island Museum, which is in the amusement park, upstairs from a freak show. The people going there are local families and tourists who don’t know anything about art or psychoanalysis. And I wanted to make something colorful, entertaining and funny, but also serious, thought provoking and informative about the social history of the neighborhood. Nobody from the straight art world came to see it, as far as I know. And yet it took on a life of its own. It toured Europe and I met many people from academics to psychoanalysts to working class visitors, some of whom wrote long comments. My favorite is from Blackpool, “This exhibition has really unsettled me – I think I will be having vivid + rather creepy dreams tonight. Very well presented but I admit I will be glad to get into the fresh air.”
I like the idea of being accessible to ordinary people who shouldn’t feel they must have some specialized knowledge about art. But I also have another side, the intellectual-research-essayist side, which is opposite of the popular and accessible – and I dream of somehow reconciling these two poles. The really great artists that I admire struggled with this problem and found ways to do it.
TI: Could you name the artists you have in mind?
ZB: Just to take the two I am working with right now…Brecht, obviously. His whole idea was to make theater for everybody – a musical theater, but also a place that would make people think. He was a very important theorist and yet he struggled with the problem of popular culture. I plan to do a project that stems from his years in Hollywood, where that problem was most acute. And Eisenstein – he was probably the greatest filmmaker-theorist cinema has ever known and he was trying to make popular films. But the question of audience is difficult, especially when you talk about moving images. People coming from the background of cinema have a different body of knowledge and way of thinking then people coming from the art world. There is a very mismatched discourse between the two worlds. What do you think?
TI: Well, I also think that film and art audiences are very different, but I don’t mind working for a very narrow art audience. My background is in science, and scientists know that very few people care about what they do. Especially if you work in a narrow, specialized field, there may be only fifty people in the world who read your articles and understand them. And you work for those people, but also for the dead scientists, and the future scientists who will come after you. In a way, you work for science as a discipline, a giant construction made by generations of people – like one of those medieval cathedrals that took centuries to build. And your own life is short, and you may add only one little brick to the structure, but even if no one notices it, the brick is there and helps it grow. May be this model does not apply to art, but I think of it in similar terms.
ZB: It’s an interesting comparison to science, but I don’t mean I am looking for some giant audience – not at all. I work in a very marginal way, outside of the art world establishment. And sometimes I feel a little sad, not because I will never make any money doing this – that’s totally fine – but I would like my work to be a part of the dialogue of what art is. But if one does not belong to the world of galleries and museums it is close to impossible.
TI: I believe you are a part of this dialogue as soon as your work is shown, whether at non-profit spaces or commercial galleries. It may sound idealistic, but I believe when we make artworks – provided they are good enough – they magically ascend to some Platonic world of artistic ideas. And there they float alongside other ideas – next to Henry Darger’s drawings, Eisenstein’s films, and so on – in conversation with each other.
ZB: Let’s just say I believe that you only live once, and if you don’t struggle to engage with ideas and speak through your work, then you’ve blown it.
TI: In one of your interviews you say that you are an artist, not a historian. Yet many of your projects are based on intensive historical research. What is for you the relationship between art and history?
ZB: I’ll give you an example. I was hanging out in Zuccotti park during Occupy Wall Street and I thought people should look at the history of occupations because it may tell us something about the present. I thought about the Paris Commune of 1871, the first great occupation in modern history, and I read The Days of the Commune by Brecht, who used history to ask questions about democracy and freedom. And I thought, we have to do this, and we have to do this now! The project had to be launched immediately, ready or not, and I put out a call for actors and we performed the play in public spaces around the city, without permits or planning – we would just show up and do it. This became my project The Days of the Commune. So when I bring history into my best work, it contains questions to be raised for today. The project I am doing now, The IFIF (Institute for Incipient Film) explores films that were proposed, sketched out but never made, such as The Glass House – a film that Eisenstein tried to make in Hollywood in 1930 to ask questions about the architecture of total surveillance, which I believe, are still relevant today. My interest is in the not-yet-happened of history, things that are still waiting to happen, and things that are now bubbling up and ready to speak. But of course I would not work in this way unless I loved to rummage in old stuff… I am a scavenger, a scavenger of stories, images, books.