Selected 5 sees the work of UK-based video artists, nominated by filmmakers shortlisted for the 2014 Film London Jarman Award, presented in cinemas across the UK. We spoke to artist Lucy Beech about her film Cannibals, which presents a satirical look at the cult of self help.
You have a show on at The Harris Museum until 4 July - what interests you about the themes you take on in this show: emotional labour and the agency of the individual in a group?
I’m interested in situations, often connected to labour where the language of productivity meets and is slowly enmeshed with that of the psyche. Personality has become central to economic behaviours, so that traditional work relationships have been recast as psychological ones. The shifts that have taken place in the funeral industry mirror this trajectory. Post industrialisation, death, which was once a domestic practice in which women played a central role (the shrouding women would lay the body to rest, preserve with herbs and prepare the body for wake and burial) was economised and recast as a practice dominated by men. The film charts a group of women who are reclaiming the practice of death as female, whilst questioning the validity of the idea that women are more empathetic or relational; so called ‘feminine’ virtues on which this new affective economy of death is being branded. This quote from Steven Bode’s forward (accompanying the publication of an essay written by Naomi Pearce, published by Film and Video Umbrella) illustrates the other more broad interests that the film engages: ‘the business of death sheds unexpected light on the way we live now, and how the rhetoric of community that underlies people’s periodic appeals to the universal virtues of human society and interpersonal relationships sits ambiguously within an increasing assertive politics of the self’.
Is this interest in gender roles and the "experience of women among women" also present in Cannibals, which is screening as part of Selected 5 and features an all-female cast?
Cannibals casts a more notably suspicious eye on these assumptions around the innate capacity women have for empathy and explores competitive vulnerability and ideas of ‘emotional entrepreneurship’. The all female group are gathered for a monthly pyramid scheme meeting in the current leaders back garden. The group are invited to take part in an exercise called ‘emotional circuit training’; each member takes their place on the ‘speakers matt’ whilst the other women attempt to haptically communicate; they literally ‘feel with each other’. I wanted the group to operate as agents for one another’s experience whilst in a more autonomous physical sense prepare their bodies; salting, smoking, breaking down the connective tissues, in preparation for a form of self consumption. Central to Cannibals for me is this idea of how female empowerment is often adopted as a brand or a marketing strategy. I based the structure of the pyramid scheme (that we see played out amongst the group) on a number of existing models. Women Empowering Women (WEW) was a pyramid scheme that proliferated in Britain in the late 90’s. It operated within a skewed therapeutic model, later to be revealed as what we now recognise as a multi-level marketing scheme, where ‘wellbeing’ is circulated as a commodity. By reenacting these models I was attempting to raise questions around the ways in which economic and emotional discourses mutually shape one another. The structure of WEW was then meshed with other existing pyramid scheme models, those that adopt metaphors of consumption as living processes that everyone can identify with.
Why did you choose meal courses / dishes as the metaphor for hierarchy in the film?
In Rabelais and His World Mikhail Bakhtin refers to the symbols of the carnival idiom as a continual shifting and reshaping – ‘à l'envers’ which refers to a world inside out. The banquet or feast operates in Cannibals as a metaphor for creating a ‘self’ that you can stand outside of and look in, and then, as leader extends ‘consume that person, become that person’. On the other hand I was interested in Bakhtin’s notion of the ‘turnabout’, this movement from top to bottom that is so readily exemplified by the pyramid scheme. As you progress through the scheme, represented first as a starter then moving to main course, you gain emotional and financial benefits. The therapeutic potential of group’s haptic communication are negated by the meetings internal hierarchies that mirror a capitalist model. This tension between the therapeutic model of performing as an agent for someone else’s experience and its application within a system that relies on a model of unsustainable growth (where the individual at the bottom will inevitably loose out should the group not recruit enough investors) plays with Bakhtin’s notion of the ‘inside out’ character of the carnivalesque – as the sceptical protagonist observes the group processually endure ‘comic crownings and uncrownings’.
The shots towards the end of the women consuming various courses are almost uncomfortable to watch - what was the aim here?
I wanted to use the camera to create slippages between different vernaculars that are so present in our everyday consumption of imagery so I worked to engage various languages within the way the camera operates. This often encompasses the language of marketing and advertising (think M&S food advert) alongside more lo-fi wedding videography, performance documentation and viral advertising. I also wanted the movement of the camera to adhere to a certain choreography that represents the viewpoint of a singular participant within the situation, so that at times the viewer is cast as the seventh member of the group. The final feasting scene where the women ‘devour themselves’ has a kind of sickly quality, one that is both seductive and hostile, echoing the nature of the event itself. The Marquee operates as a temporary performance space, it also functioned practically as a huge soft box which allowed for that kind of milky ‘magic hour’ tone that advertising campaigns often apply in grading.
Selected 5 is screening at FACT on 9 July, and also includes films by Nicholas Brooks, Niels Bugge, Lucy Clout, Kate Cooper, Anita Delaney, Tom Lock, Richard Sides and Min-Wei Ting. Click here to find out more and to buy tickets.