Conceptual Performance

Melanie Manchot’s Twelve explores the intimate stories, rituals, repetitions and ruptures of lives spent in addiction and recovery. Inspired by the visual acuity of renowned contemporary filmmakers, the work connects and collapses individual recollections in which everyday situations, events and activities are rendered dramatic or abstract and infused with tragedy, pathos and humour. It screened as part of the Artists’ Film category at ASFF 2016.

A: Twelve is a multi-channel video installation that looks at intimate stories and rituals about substance abuse. Could you describe the concept behind the piece and why it’s important to be told through film?
Twelve was developed over the course of two years in close dialogue with 12 people in recovery from substance misuse who were attending rehabilitation centres in Liverpool, Oxford and London. The project was built slowly and involved regular workshops and exchanges focusing on all aspects of the process of filmmaking and designed to give the participants control over their representation, letting them understand the tools we would use together to form a dialogue on issues of addiction. The exponential rise in substance misuse across many societies poses urgent socio-political questions and I believe that visual art and film can propose innovative ways to contribute to the debate, opening up new ways to think through and articulate the subject. When working with such complex issues, artists are challenged to avoid instrumentalisation, as well as reiterating clichés and stereotypes. Throughout the process, I worked with vulnerable people who were going through a fundamental re-calibration of their identities, re-framing possible conceptions of their future life. The complexities of ethics and aesthetics, which inform much of my practice, were paramount here; it was crucial that the subjects’ personal written and oral testimonies, their performances, rituals and creative conceptions formed the final works.

The history of film and the processes of filmmaking offer powerful constructs and methodologies in this context: performativity and narrative, constituent elements of film, are key devices for how we all articulate personhood – how we present versions of ourselves to the outside world, and arguably to ourselves. Using forms of re-enactment to frame each contributor’s memories and experiences gave them a way to have authorship whilst creating visual frameworks that would hold their stories. Each person’s contribution was filmed as a single uncut, continuous sequence, referencing iconic scenes from the films of renowned contemporary film-makers such as Michael Haneke, Gus van Sant, Bela Tarr and Chantal Akerman – a ferry journey across the Mersey, a darkened room looking out on to an early morning street, a car wash, the cutting of daisies with small scissors, the obsessive cleaning of a floor. These performed elements provided the framework for reflections on remembered incidents and states of mind. Whilst the themes of the work connect to urgent social issues, the installation was intimate and performative.

A: In what ways do you think this film is both performative and participatory? Is this something that your practice as a whole focuses on? MM: These attributes inform all my work – they are key components through which I build the relations that are at the core of all my projects. In many ways, the practice forms an ongoing enquiry into what we call personhood – the performativity of identity and how that links up with wider theories of consciousness. All of my work deeply engages with and is shaped by the people who become my participants, contributors and collaborators. However, I would argue that in Twelve this applies even more strongly than in other works. It created a framework for the articulation of the real-life material that each person wanted to present. Hence, I tend to refer to the twelve people in this work as contributors rather than participants, to acknowledge the significance of their influence on the work.

A: How did you plan out the structure of the piece, in terms of telling the 12 different narratives?
The short evolved slowly, both in content and structure, compared to other works it relied even more strongly on the relational exchanges that would inform all aspects of the work. To give the contributors as much control over their scenes as possible we agreed that their contributions would be uncut, unedited by me. Early in the discussions it became clear that rather than one overarching linear narrative, the work needed to have ruptures, that it required non sequiturs and should at times jar and stumble. It felt crucial that the work did not offer explanations or solutions but perhaps allowed to give an insight to states of mind.

A: As this screened at ASFF 2016 within artists’ film, could you talk about the different ways in which art and film come together within this piece and how you think they are distinguished within the digital age?
MM: Art and film intersect in many complex and mutually enriching ways, and whilst they have distinct histories they cross reference substantially. I don’t distinguish between art and film in my own practice and most of my work over the last 10 years has been within moving image, comprising both single channel and multi-channel installations. Film and video has the ability to operate as sculpture, as drawing, as a form of painting and my own film work is strongly influences by my background in photography and my ongoing investigations into portraiture. However, at times there are differences between the work of “independent filmmakers” and that of “moving image artists.” I’d be reluctant to sum up how these practices differ as that would be reductive but perhaps there are different intentions for the agency of the camera at play or different approaches to the histories of both image making and narrative.

A: Where else has the film been screened, and what have these experiences taught you about the role of the 21st century filmmaker?
Twelve was presented as a touring exhibition across England including shows at Fact, Liverpool, Peckham Platform, London, Aspex, Portsmouth, Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne as well as in a few shows abroad. It also screened at Locarno Film Festival in 2015. The second half of this question merits a whole essay, but amongst many other important experiences the work has taught me to take my responsibility as a filmmaker very seriously, particularly as most of the majority of the work engages deeply with people – hence mutual trust and respect are crucial to each film. Often working on ideas and projects over longer periods of time is also a huge privilege, it allows me to research intensely as well as to spend time with people, get to know their lives, hear them and find ways to get their voices out into the world.

A: What do you have planned in terms of future films / art projects?
A whole range of new projects are in the pipeline: most immediately I am working on a large-scale performative event and film production for Art Night 2017, a new one night art festival taking place in London on 1 July. I am working with 10 dance schools, each representing a different form of dance and all based in London’s East End. We are hosting a huge all night participatory dance event at Exchange Square, Broadgate which will also become a new film installation. Over the course of the night people who come along can learn 10 different forms of dance in a beautifully lit square set against the City of London. To me, each form of dance is a language, a way of speaking the culture it originates from and by extension the work addresses questions on cultural diversity in the current political climate.

Longer term I am in development for my first feature film, which will be a hybrid fiction documentary I am making with Ste Giddings, one of the 12 contributors from Twelve. During the making of Twelve Ste discovered both his passion and talent for acting, and he is now on his way to becoming an actor. This feature takes the form of a film within a film, creating a durational, observational portrait of Ste, of his process of real life transformation whilst simultaneously filming him as he takes on his first major role in a fiction film, going into character and becoming a fictional person.

Entries are open for ASFF until 31 May.

Still from Twelve. Courtesy of the filmmaker and Parafin, London. Twelve commissioned by Portraits of Recovery (PORe)