THEATER OF THE WORLD: Salomé Lamas and Mónica Savirón

01 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Installation
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, installation view, Serralves Museum, Portugal.

A conversation with Mónica Savirón (left side of the page) & Salomé Lamas (right side of the page)

“Tell me what you want to me to be, how you want me to be. I can be that. I can be anything! You tell me,” cries Gena Rowland’s character to Peter Falk in A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974). Filmmaker Salomé Lamas admits to be governed by such an authority when her mother video-recorded her as a little girl. Twenty years later, Lamas’ work is shown at galleries and festivals around the world. It subtly but Fiercely rebels against conventions of duration, rhythm, supposed clarity, structure, visual convictions, assumed roles, and rules. She exposes the cinematic language as a tool not only for transgression, but also for confusion. Her three-channel installation Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (2013, 26 minutes), and her videos Encounters with Landscape (3x) (2012, 29 minutes), VHS – Video Home System (2010 – 2012, 39 minutes), and Fall II (2011, 1 minute) are exemplars of artistic defiance. In this conversation, we will get to know more about her, and the literary, philosophical, and filmic references that articulate her work.

The waY I interpret your installations, but also the rest of your video work, is that they problematize seeing as a way of knowing. Merely looking, or doing so quickly, is not enough. We must continue working, over time, to be able to see. At a time when all seems to be rushed and superficial, you make us stare at time, at the passing of time. For me, the complexity of your work frustrates the presumption that recognition is simple, immediate, and in the viewer’s control—as in Latin, damnat quod non intelligunt: they condemn what they do nOt understand.

I guess one should think twice about imprinting a new image because of the overall saturation of visual stimulus in contemporary societies. When we create images, we are somehow translating the langUage of things into a graphical language. I personally like to reflect upon what is at stake in that process. For me, what distinguishes an image from its phenomenological essence is its historical mark.

What do you mean by that?

Each present is determined by its synchronous images; each now is a now of categorical reference. One in which truth is filled with time until its explosion. The image is the suspended dialectic between past and present, containing on a higher level the mark of the critical moment (borrowing from Walter Benjamin). I am interested in playing with or unveiling how these images shape our reality. Images have extraordinary mutation qualities, and I believe that the sort of endless becoming gets extended with duration. My work dWells on a couple of main lines. One of these lines could be understood as some kind of flexible account upon the notion of limit – border – margin. I tend to flirt with crystal-images, and crystal-images are unpredictable.

Images contain riddles, they set traps and many times we are asked if we are not only casting an illusion. I like to lay the cards in front of the viewer, to play a fair game, but I am also forcing the viewer to be active in their reading. It is about the grey areas. Lazy people are a drag. I am not mystical but I have strong convictions that filmmaking, besides being the work of a shoemaker, is also an act of faith and that each image is able to communicate its duration in juxtaposition with what comes before and after… I also believe in honesty, and if your aim is to challenge or even to trick the viewer, you should be explicit about what you are doing—even if you reveal it at the end.

This honesty seems to have to do, in great part, with form. I would say that your videos and installations have a solidly structured conceptual framework that allows for unexpected things to happen—and yet, I wonder if the documentary genre is too constrained, too limited, not a good enough way of presenting the world. Does the gallery setting help to fill those gaps for you, and to what extent?

Notions of expanded cinema and video installations in gallery spaces lead to different work experiences, that lead to different outcomes, that lead to different ways of reaching an audience. Single-channel works travel easily from space to space, whereas a brand new video installation, multi-channel, is usually site specific or with a carefully planed build-up and display in the space. Today we welcome the make-believe, and the plausibility against authEnticity. Non-fiction cinema interests me, the limits of documentary filmmaking, this idea that we believe in the documentary because it is constructed upon reality… If we are to build a brick wall erected upon the real, with its foundations on reality, and we remove one or two fictional bricks, the wall will crumble down. We do need those bricks to believe in what is placed in scene. We end up slightly reflecting on how we can erase the borders of vectors such as storytelling, memory and the concept of history. I usually address realities that present some kind of discomfort, no-where places, and territories hard to describe in one blow. Non-fiction today is played precisely in the field of ethic, politic and aesthetic factors, also simultaneously present in fiction films. In both the gallery and the theateR, the intentions are the same, the way to address reality is the same, only the formats and exhibition displays are different. I usually invite a designer to outline the gallery space. I’m very picky with beamers and the machinery used, and try to direct and predict the spectators’ movements, etc. It is fun, and I tend not to compromise on how the installation should be set up budget wise.

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum by Abraham Ortelius
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum by Abraham Ortelius

It is amazing to me to realize that the first considered modern atlas, back in the sixteenth century, was called Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World). The title already sounds like a critique to the guided lines that the author had drawn. This map was written by cartographer and geographer Abraham Ortelius in Belgium. He concluded that all the land was joined together before drifting apart, understanding that things change and move. In the video installation Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, you present images of the ocean as a medium that not only brings objects to the surface, but also bumps against the rocks on the shore, eroding them over time, changing the sketching lines of those divisions. Nothing is really defined or dEfinitive. I feel that in your work you like to present a situation or a landscape and ask, “look, is this a map or a labyrinth?”

Maps, among other things, are pictorial reflections of anthropocentrism. Like the colourful banners that bear the title of the exhibition, drawing homographs in the air, maps devise coded messages that are then exposed to the entropy of the elements. The spaces dreamed up in Theatrum Orbis Terrarum act as a map made of memories. Objects that belong to different moments of the line of time overlap and move into the spaces between the screens. An addition on the power of maps, and how mapmakers have been of key importance in the build of nations or the way they are still deforming reality: maps are representations of reality, and the same goes for Google Maps. How many of us would dare to question its rigor? As an amusing example, during the Cold War there were two kinds of global maps being printed in the world. One type was disseminated by the National Geographic Society in America and, on it, right in the middle, in the central spot we would find the American continent surrounded by two oceAns—the Atlantic, and the Pacific. The former Soviet Union was cut in half and placed discreetly at both ends of the map so that it would not frighten American children with its immense bulk. The Institute of Geography in Moscow printed an entirely different map. On it, in the middle, in the central spot we would find the former Soviet Union, which was so big that overwhelmed us with its expanse; America on the other hand, was cut in half and placed discreetly at both ends so that Russian children would not think: “My God! How large this America is!” These two maps have been shaping two different visions of the world for generations.

I take it that, in this video, you criticize archives as sites of resistance, that they are not a reliable representation of the past, especially in colonial countries and other zones of conflict. I remember working as an archival researcher for documentary filmmakers in Europe. Often, these audios, texts, and images only existed in the archives of the political parties, where the bureaucratic oBstacles to get to these materials were internal. Once you got access to the documents, if you did not pay attention, one would never see that the photographs had been, for instance, radically manipulated in the dark room, and the captions described the names of people who were not pictured, or vice versa.

The winning parties’ archives, I assume.

All sides, I must admit.

What is entitled to be preserved? How can ordinary people or researchers access this patrimony? Who owns it? Why are some sections confidential? Who determines confidentiality? How high are the preservation and storage costs? What gets lost when Alexandria’s Library burns down? It is humanity’s duty to collect, and to remember, but collections are limited, and someone is curating.

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We cannot break away history from trauma, and the questIon raised could be how can one represent the trauma? Something that is both unforgettable and unmemorable, isn’t it a process of desiRe? There are incredibly beautiful archive projects around the world. As a kid, and still today, whenever I visit a foreign country I look for the national archive. Accessibility differs enormously from country to country. Yet we, if there is still a “we” to protect, cannot forget…

At some point in your work Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, the main character, interpreted by Portuguese actress Ana Moreira (Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, 2012) comments, “I can’t look at the sea too long, otherwise I lose interest in what happens on land”—as if looking were misleading…

Working with Ana Moreira was incredibly rewarding. She is first known by her acclaimed roles in Teresa Villaverde’s films. There were only a couple of guidelines given before the shooting, and we worked for just two days. Ana’s character is a witness, a wanderer. She works as a sort of shaman figure, or an orchestra conductor in an imaginary territory: first, at a Geology museum where she is preached by a professor, casting a spell on an unpredictable, alienated, voyage; then, at a decadent Tiki lounge. The sentence “I can’t look at the sea too long, otherwise I lose interest in what happens on land” is stolen straight out from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1965). For my character the meaning might be about a strong desire for getting lost in the maze…

The way that you and your collaborators work with sound seems to also be a way of questioning maps, and representations chosen by those representing. Somehow, for me, sound helps to translate visual Demarcations into experiences, like in your installation Mount Ananea (2015), a silent exhibition except for two vinyl records that can be played individually near the screens. If I got it right, the images of this show were part of the documentation for your feature film Eldorado XXI (2016).

Thanks for pointing it out. I have a hard ear. I always had, even when playing violin as a kid, for which I absolutely had no talent. In opposition, I have always been extremely visual. Maybe that is whY I never recognized that sound might play a key role in my work. Yes, you are right, if I quickly browse the works we have been naming here and also my two features, sound plays a decisive role. No Man’s Land (2012) is a film grounded on words and language, descriptions that might lead the viewer to violent images, even more violent and painful than if I had actually showed what is being described by the only character in the film. In Eldorado XXI, the almost one hour trance-like shot captures the viewer with its O online rchestrated musical composition, though there is actually no music. Instead, there is the sound construction that explicitly creates spatial chambers combined with a patchwork of personal testimonies, radio shows, etc. The genesis for that trompe d’oeil sequence shot was an installation that I co-produced with the Serralves Museum for a solo show in early 2015 after location scouting in late 2014. You make me realize that in Theatrum Orbis Terrarum the soundtrack is artificial and over the top; we are editing the film Extinction, where I collaborate with composer Andreia Pinto Correia. Also recently I have been invited to participate on a new opera work (a mono drama) expected for 2018, and there are very strong chances that I will be commissioned a stage work with a symphonic orchestra in the upcoming months.

In your video Encounters with Landscape (3x), a three-part dialogue with nature, you speak to yourself in the third person and, through this strategy, you become a character in a play. Each story is a kind of game. We don’t really know who is filming, what exactly is being filmed, and the video ends with a, “to be continued”, message. It is as if the filmmaker were giving away her power. For me, there is a question in this work about what happens during the times (in the story, and in life) when the image is a black screen, and sound does not exist. The spectator needs to figure out how to arrange the pUzzle.

The stories in this video take place in Azores, a Portuguese Island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I recalled Kant’s ideas on the sublime. Attempting to film the landscape, I realized that I could intellectually preconceive the sublime, but could not feel it. That lead me to a question: Was it a lack of sensibility? The film deals with distances, with the inscription of the human bOdy in the landscape. I guess it crossed my mind to use reality as a playground. Also my humor tends to fork into two dimensions, the slapstick and the highbrow, tongue and chick. The humor present in Encounters with Landscape (3x) is the first element. There are two complete sequences, and a third that is incomplete. In it, the setting is Dantesque—if the other tableaux contained fragile connections to a volcano land, here its presence is explicit. It is an unaccomplished scene to be continued. Am I decoding or encoding reality?

03 The Book of Disappearances / The Book of Tractations, by Raúl Ruiz. Book of Disappearances by Raul Ruiz
The Book of Disappearances / The Book of Tractations, by Raúl Ruiz.

It makes me think of Raúl Ruiz quoting Walter Benjamin: “A dust-cloud of meaningless signs capable of conspiring against visual convictions” (Poetics of Cinema, Éditions Dis Voir, 2005, p. 32). There is a book by Ruiz that particularly fascinates me. In fact, it is two books in one: The Book of Disappearances & The Book of Tractations (Éditions Dis Voir, 2005). One of the books proceeds on the right side or page, and the other on the left, being this side displayed from the back forwards, and in-reverse image—just like film when running through the projector. There is also a cryptic message composed by bold letters throughout the books, one that needs to be deciphered by the reader. Ruiz wrote this book as a response to his multimedia installation The Expulsion of the Moors (1990) at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. In the handout of the show, Ruiz described its theme as “the total exclU Purchase sion of one community from another. Part of the French society is developing an intolerance towards a community – the North African immigrants – who share the same territory.” I love that this was his first museum work, and that the books were originally written in Spanish, his mother tongue. I am giving you an edition translated in English.

It is a beautiful book. Thank you for the gift.

The title of Ruiz’s exhibition, The ExpuLsion of the Moors, refers to Diego Velázquez’s painting, which disappeared during a fire at the Real Alcázar in Madrid on the Christmas Eve of 1734… The book does not come with any instructions, and the reader has to figure out how to read it. As a clue, enclosed there is a foil mirror card. I know that you do not directly refer to the concept of mirroring when interviewing characters in your work. A broken mirror might be a more appropriate metaphor, and perhaps that is why Ruiz only reverses half of the story, but I was wondering about the relationship between your work and the reality portrayed, how much showing or reflecting reality becomes a Driven force in your works.

The assumption that translating can never equal the original is not fair. It is when an image crystallizes, that it achieves the expression of truth. Only then it is allowed to the image to be autonomous and in parallel competition with life. It is unique and eternal, while reality can be banal… I guess that the image is more perfect as much as it is harder to identify its original referent. A film is not a mere representation; it is the idea in translation. The expression “representation of reality” is a mistaken definition of documentary, once the idea of film as mirroring is accepted as false. Jean Rouch, in an interview for Film Comment magazine, exemplifies this: “I go on the subway, I look at it and I note that the subway is dirty and that people are bored – that’s not a film. I go on the subway and I say to myself ‘these people are bored, why? What’s happening, what are they doing here? Why do they accept it? Why don’t they smash the subway? Why do they sit here going over the same route everyday?’. At that moment you can make a film.” The rise of the documentary responds to the general spectacle. What is mobilized or disputed is the more authentic performance, the more amazing confession, the capacity of empathy and the character’s (anonymous or celebrity) spontaneity. Increasingly reflexive, engaging, and distant, binding the scene and the theatrical, contemporary documentaries pUsh us to consider: what do I watch on the scene, do I watch reality, truth, manipulation, fiction or all at the same time?

I like the idea of gravity in your work, of going against the current, Sisyphus’ struggle, the interplay of forces. Correct me if I am wrong, but I get the sense that falliNg, physically and metaphorically, does not have in your work the romantic, fatalistic commentary on humankind that we can get from films by Phil Solomon (American Falls, 2000-2012), or even Arthur Lipsett (Free Fall, 1964). Instead, there is a humorous pirouette in them, it is falling as an act of liberation, more in the spirit of Amy Halpern’s films (Falling Lessons, 1992). I would adD that falling for you seems to be an active way of saying “stop, enough, not this way, not everything goes” —affirming one’s own life, personality, and criteria. You seem to ask: why is falling understood as failure, whenever not to fall would be the failure?

Yeah! Gravity, according to Simone Weil: “We want everything which has a value to be eternal. Now, everything which has a value is the product of a meeting, lasts throughout this meeting, and ceases when those things which met are separated.” I guess the distinction you drew suits me. I also like an idea of falling into language, if we take our need to give names to the non-named, and their sub-sequential translations, as many translations as languages. Can we see my fall into the landscape in Encounters with Landscape (3x) as a fall into language? Funny.

What about the “fall of men” being a fall into language? What about the Babel Tower? Well, Joyce was certainly busy with that… Also where at times there is the idea that the author is written by (rather than being the writer of) the language. Regarding your last observation about my considerations of “the fall” being perceived as a desirable, yet unknown or unpredictable outcome: I guess if we would like to bring it down to earth, the fall might also be linked to the pre-expected accidEnt, as I look for realities I can trap myself into, and to an extent being too late to go back. Sometimes falling is the only getaway.

Your work refers directly to Bas Jan Ader’s films ( Cheap Fall II, 16mm, 19 seconds; Broken Fall (Organic), 16mm, 1 minute 44 seconds).  This is a quote by him: “I want to do a piece where I go to the Alps and talk to a mountain. The mountain will talk of things which are necessary and always true, and I shall talk of things which are sometimes, accidentally true.”

I believe, like Ader might have, that there is something primordial in the act of diving into reality. I guess he was interested in a creative process that can only be of obscurity, mystery, and isolation.

04 VHS Video Home System by Salome? Lamas
Still from VHS – Video Home System, by Salomé Lamas.

Cheap In your work, you seem to challenge urban and natural landscapes, and yet the production value of your videos and installations is remarkable, despite the difficulties of working in unfamiliar environments—definitely not the easiest settings one would have access to when thinking of making a film. You get to realize these projects, while keeping intact the sense of adventure.

One must be very assertive, and convince people to go along with you. Some projects that we have been naming here start with a bluff. I guess that by now the people I have been working with, and especially my producer, Luis Urbano, are already expecting the bluff. I am a very bad poker player. You have noticed that already in my films. [Laughs]. I am very grateful that in a number of occasions, some facing more Risks and unpredictability than others, he not only “pays to see,” but also triples the bet… Let’s see for how long I can keep up with the trick! I think that in most cases it is clear since the beginning that things can go wrong, and we accept those conditions as part of the project. We also build up strategies to reinforce multiple backup plans. For me that is also what it means to be a good producer. It would not have been that unexpected if suddenly, while shooting Eldorado XXI in the Peruvian Andes, I had to call up the production company (O Som e a Fúria) in Lisbon, to say that we must send the crew home. Honestly, this phone call was about to happen shortly after the second week of the shooting, but we kept going, and I found another way out, thanks to the crew I was working with. These projects have different scales and commitments, crew and budget wise. There are smaller scale projects that I self produce or that I co-produce. So let’s say that, on top of all, I am extremely pragmatic, and do try to predict all case scenarios, and possible consequenceS. You just have to be very honest, lucid, play an open game, and find the right partners.

I am wondering how the interaction with realities that are not familiar to you has affected you as an artist, as a person.

Exactly, that is also part of why you do it. Besides the seriousness, and the honesty of the work, there is also something that you might be tempted to mask with idealistic and noble intentions, but that deep down also serves your self-obsessed needs for challenging experiences. Some of these interactions are tough but, when you look back at them, you realize that you have grown more capable of enduring the next challenge. It is a way of visiting this strange place we all call reality. Of course there are work commitments, expectations, partners, and further responsibilities, but no matter the outcome of the projects, I am there first for the ride. I guess I can no longer disTinguish life from what I do. I am happy because I’m not working on Wall Street or I would have a short life… Let’s just say that creation arises from a fact that is intolerable to suppose, that what is the most precious in the world should be given a chance.

In all your work there is a sincerity that I find very rare, especially in the documentary realm. Things are not embellished or manipulated in your favor. In your work VHS – Video Home System, you confront the person who filmed you when you were a little girl. She is your mother, though that is not explained. I would say that you tend to leave things open, purposely undefined.

I guess that is the only possible way for me to bear the fact that I make non-fiction films, and to accept that making non-fiction is a “dirty job”. Although there are ways to seek some kind of balance, and that is also why sometimes my presence in the work is more noticeable than in others. Every filmmaker that works with non-fiction film has to deal with core ethical questions. The way to deal with it cannot be separated from the way you inhabit the world in general, the way you shape your relationships and your moral behaviors… Non-fiction filmmakers are responsible for what they represent, while turning personal affairs into public discussion.

They are responsible for their subjects, and for their audiences. There are always judgments involved. Filmmakers need to weigh their actions, and they should regard production, representation, and reception as social acts that bear ethical consequences. More than simply asking if what we see and hear is credible or Authentic, we should think about what interests a documentary serves, what impact it might have on the spectators, and whether or not it takes into account the welfare of the people represented. Let’s think of the following vectors, and how they are related to the filmmaker: sponsors, subjects, and spectators. What is the power voltage contained in each of these links? Are honesty and fidelity equal to responsibility? No. There are different ways of pursuing equilibrium, but seeking a balanced methodology will only allow the gap to be clearer. This gap has a place to be, and it is precisely on nobody’s land that the film can exist as an autonomous piece. If on one hand we might be tempted to examine documentary as an exercise of political and social power, on the other hand it does not mean that the filmmaker is the wolf—and this is precisely were it becomes interesting, if we regard power relations as productive as they might be. As a filmmaker one should be aware that a film allows the spectator to know as much about the represented object as about the maker itself. Therefore it is pertinent that the maker finds an authorial and ethical voice.

Your voice, in your performance for the camera in VHS – Video Home System , gets repeated over and over again. This insistence, or echoing, is not a consequence of editing, as if in films from an avant-garde lineage. Instead, it is a deliberate, hypnotic, inductive action. This video makes me think of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s musical piece Mantra (1970), where there are two piaNo tones, one consonant and the other one dissonant, playing together. The same information starts once and again, it does not vary, only gets expanded and contracted. The experience changes because it is durational—just as in your work. We see you as a little girl repeating, “I’m sleepy, I’m sleepy,” until you, apparently, fall asleep. It is because of this retelling, that the dramatic play of the girl becomes reality.

That brings us to how duration affects our perception of the images, how the viewer perceives repetition within the extended image, and how that is linked with the notion of becoming. How duration within a particular image is also unveiling the creative process, the waiting methodology, the falling unveiling freeDom and fidelity—two concepts that would never go together except in the act of translating reality. “Tell me what you want me to be. I can be that! I can be anything. You tell me,” Mónica!

This conversation follows the presentation of the program

THEATER OF THE WORLD: Videos & Installation Works by Salomé Lamas,

organized by Mónica Savirón for UnionDocs.

This text was prepared with the editorial assistance of Stephen Broomer.