The Structure of Knowledge and the Artist’s Choice
An interview with Danish multimedia artist Gitte Villesen
Laine Kristberga 28/10/2014
Gitte Villesen (1965) is a Danish multimedia artist whose video installation “It Runs About Like Ants” (2014) can be viewed at the Office Gallery of the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art untill 13 November.
The protagonist of the video installation is Skaidrīte – a Latvian woman living in the countryside who is locally known as a healer. The video installation is presented as an encounter with Skaidrīte during which she reveals her practices of folk medicine. Along the way, Skaidrīte also reveals her memories of the horrible events affecting her family during the war years of the 20th century. On the one hand, the work can be viewed as an ethnographically-curious study that focuses on a culture whose counterpart in Denmark is nearly extinct. On the other hand, it is an intuitively intelligent and intimate portrait of Skaidrīte, as skilfully presented by the artist.
Taking into account contemporary trends both in Latvian video art and cinematography, and drawing parallels with Ieva Epnere’s video installation “Zenta” (2004) and Ivars Zviedris’s film “Dokumentālists” (2013), the fact that a Danish artist has chosen to make a video with a Latvian woman at its centre seems intriguing. In addition, two more works will follow! Is it a characteristic feature of the times we are living in, or an individual artist’s choice – this is one among the many questions that a spectator could ask after watching “It Runs About Like Ants”.
As I understand, you were commissioned by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art to make this work. Was it part of Survival Kit?
Agnese Lūse made a video programme in 2010 with multicultural artists hailing from all over the world, but who were residing in Berlin at the time. My work about Gambia was part of this project. In this work, three women talk about their ideas on magic and beliefs, and on healing. After showing the work, Agnese commented that in Latvia, there are so many women practicing this so-called alternative medicine or healing, and who have knowledge of folk medicine. According to Agnese, it’s been a long tradition here. Afterwards, we agreed with Solvita [Krese] that I should come to Latvia and continue working on this subject. That is how the project started, and we scouted around the Latvian countryside, interviewing the women who practice folk medicine.
So, you did not know Skaidrīte – the protagonist of this work – particularly well?
No, Skaidrīte was one of the women that we were introduced to by Signe [Pucena], who runs the artists’ residency centre Serde, in Aizpute. Of course, I was quite dependent on being introduced to these women, so Agnese asked around and she contacted Signe. We first went to film Skaidrīte in 2011, and then we returned two years later.
The viewer can spot a difference between these two time periods in the work, too. In the first one, only Skaidrīte’s and the interviewer’s voice can be heard as a voice-over. There are long, static shots of nature. The spectator listens to the narrative in the background, but doesn’t see Skaidrīte’s portrait visually. However, after a span of two years, Skaidrīte is finally shown, as are the other women interviewing Skaidrīte.
You also mentioned that there were several women filmed in relation to the subject of healing, not just Skaidrīte. Will there be other works following this one?
It is super-interesting for me to continue with this project! The plan is to make videos with the two other women we filmed. First, I thought I would make a work with all three of them, as there are many issues that overlap, as well as many differences. But when I started to work on the project, I realised that there must be a separate work on Skaidrīte, and that I want to make one story around her, and so I will introduce the other two in two separate works. So, in the end, I think there will be three works; three separate stories, yet all are linked together.
Why did Latvia seem so interesting to you? Why, for example, did you not make such video works in Denmark? Is this tradition of folk medicine not so common over there? It seems weird because, for example, my grandparents' generation still practices this kind of “alternative” medicine, and it’s rather an everyday kind of practice. Is it totally extinct in Denmark?
It has disappeared a lot in Denmark. I mean, I don’t know how it is in Latvia, because I’m only a guest here. But the impression I got is that this tradition is still alive here and that people do possess knowledge of such a kind. That wouldn’t be the case in Denmark. I tried to find out what allowed for this tradition to survive here, and one explanation might be the fact that people in the Latvian countryside – and the people of Latvia, in general – have less money than, for instance, do people in Denmark. The herbs and plants were just outside the door, and they could be used immediately to treat the problem. In contrast, in Denmark there were more financial resources available, and consequently, there is a much more established hospital system. Also, a part of the Danish system was the authority that such institutions could claim to have over scientific knowledge. In Denmark, folk medicine has been marginalised and is referred to as “alternative practices”. The knowledge of folk medicine is largely considered intuitive and experience-based, and not scientifically proven. The established medical system can also, at times, base its practices on assumptions that have not been proven scientifically, but they have an authority and a system of argumentation that gives academic medicine the upper hand. This is one of the subjects of the work that I also find very interesting – how is knowledge valued, argued for, and structured.
I find it very interesting that you devote so much of the film to showing Skaidrīte’s white cat. It made me think: the radiant Skaidrīte and her white cat break the stigma and prejudice surrounding the stereotypical view of witches and their traditional possession of a black cat. So, Skaidrīte is presented as the good witch, or the white witch, if you like. Did you see these parallels yourself? (laughing)
(laughing) I did not see the parallel with the black cat, but I actually liked that the cat was not black. In fact, Skaidrīte has two cats, and one of them was always around her. While filming the scene with the bees, the white cat was around, too, so I thought the bees and the cat became separate characters in the film, and I didn’t want to lose this notion. So, when we move inside, the white cat is shown again – and still at Skaidrīte’s feet. This is one of the shots that, to my mind, underlines one of the side-stories or aspects of Skaidrīte’s life, and for me, it was important to keep it.
I also have a question about the title of the work. Were you aware that there are various connotations for ants in Latvian culture? Does the title possess a second meaning?
I would be very interested in hearing all of those expressions, and to learn their connotations. Actually, during the working process the title of this work kept changing, and eventually I grew tired of all of my titles! (laughing) The first title that I had in mind emerged from the recordings, and particularly from one story that Skaidrīte told about her grandmother, namely, that the grandmother would have liked to pass on her knowledge, but Skaidrīte’s mother was not interested and Skaidrīte herself was born too late to take over this knowledge. So, the first title was more along the lines of: “She Wanted to Pass on Her Knowledge”, and I liked the fact that it had ‘she’ and ‘her’, and ‘knowledge’ in one sentence. However, during the working process, the story about Skaidrīte’s grandmother became of secondary importance, as there were other stories that emerged. Then, for a long time, the work was called just “Skaidrīte”, because the sound of the name for me seems unusual and it sounds very beautiful from my perspective. Then I became concerned that naming the project “Skaidrīte” would imply that the film is solely about her as a person. However, the film is not as much a portrait of Skaidrīte, but about the meetings with her and Ināra. Then there was this one sentence where she talks about using the earth for healing and reducing stress by putting one's hands into the soil, and how it feeling like ants running about. I kept coming back to this sentence because it refers to a situation when you feel something that you did not feel before because your focus has changed. To focus on this other – unprecedented – feeling seemed to make sense. Also, I could draw parallels with ourselves – we were also running about like ants. (laughing)
I personally think that this is a very good choice because, knowing the Latvian language, I was able to read into it the connotations or double meanings of ants. In fact, both ants and bees symbolise diligence in Latvian culture. And this leads to my next question – what about the bees in the film? There is an entire scene with bees, and it was very interesting to watch the reaction of Skaidrīte and other women – how you all remained calm and how Skaidrīte’s friend tried to save the bees from drowning in the honey. And no one was hysterically running away or screaming! (laughing) Was there a kind of hypnotic feeling there?
(laughing) If I had been alone in that situation, I would have never stayed. I would have walked away, afraid of being stung. When I shoot my films, I have a certain agenda and specific interests concerning a specific topic, but I always try to enter situations with an open mind, as I am meeting people I do not know and I have no idea of what these encounters might generate. So, I do not try to force the situation to a point where it would not have developed naturally. In this particular situation, we were sitting around the table in Skaidrīte’s garden and all the bees were flying around and crawling into the honey. The plan was to go to Skaidrīte’s garden and film the herbs that she uses for healing. Everybody was waiting for a signal from me to leave the table, but then I found it very fascinating that all of these bees were flying and crawling around the honey, with us still sitting around the table. So I decided to film some more. And everybody felt comfortable in this situation and accepted my decision to stay. When the bees opened the lid of the honey pot, I became aware that what we were seeing was something quite unusual. From then on, the situation took its own kind of course. Also, this scene helped to put emphasis on Ināra, Skaidrīte's friend, because it seemed to me that they both have a very warm and strong friendship. Surely, we can always discuss the particular meaning of the bees in the film, but in that situation, nothing was planned. (laughing)
I also noticed that Skaidrīte talked very affectionately about the bees, how they collect honey and how it sits on their tiny legs. To me, it seemed that being so close to nature brings out the best in humanity; all of a sudden, you feel empathy and want to care about something so little as a bee.
But it was mainly Ināra who saved the bees! I would not dare! And even Skaidrīte in the beginning said: “Let them be.” Yet Ināra was very determined to save them and fish them out of the honey. But this shot is also very important because Skaidrīte talks about her environment and surroundings. The bees, entering the scene and leaving again, indicate that the forces of nature which Skaidrīte talks about are giving us a demonstration of their powers. (laughing) I also liked that the situation was one in which we were all sitting around the table talking and surrounded by flowers, listening to the dramatic stories told by Skaidrīte in her calm and peaceful voice. So, there is this contrast between the image that you see and the story that you hear. The dynamic between what is being told and what is being shown turned out to be an important part of the film.
Gitte Villesen. Photo: Matilda Mester
Memories are another subject of the film. To me, the fragmented editing – with several blackouts leading from one scene to another – resounds with the nature of memory, which is also fragmented and selective. Was this a deliberate parallel that you drew?
The editing is, of course, very deliberate. My first attempt to create a story was by going through all of the recordings that we had with Skaidrīte – which was quite a lot. I started to analyse all of the stories that she had told, and tried to see the connections among them. I had a whole wall covered in post-its, and still I was not able to put it all together – there were too many different stories leading in many different directions. Then, at some point, I realised that I had to stop analysing. I looked again through the filmed material and I started to focus on Skaidrīte’s voice. The next day, I selected the scenes in which I thought Skaidrīte’s voice was the most concentrated and calm, and the stories I ended up with are the ones you see now in the film. Also, because of the intensity and tension in the stories, I felt there was a need to step back and to sort of exhale. That is basically why the film is edited with the blackouts and why I kept it fragmented, too.
I was also wondering about the general intention behind the work. Do you see yourself as an ethnographer observing and documenting the unknown Other?
This is a difficult question because it is clear that I share many interests with the ethnographic discipline. Perhaps one of the differences is that I head out to a particular location “just” to make a story with an approach that its similar to literature or narrative film. I don’t have to prove any thesis and I don’t have to search for a proof of certain theories. Yet, there is a parallel, too. You go out and meet the Other in their context, and you try to create a situation in which they will tell you or show you part of their lives whilst being in their context. You have to be willing to go along with what you experience and to be open to the unknown. I hope to create a situation in which the people I meet tell their story in the way that they prefer to do it. I would never enter a meeting hoping that the people would tell me what it is that I have in mind.
You don’t impose your authority.
I simply feel that I don’t have the authority when I am in these situations. Most people appreciate being seen. When you have a camera, you have an excuse to knock on somebody’s door and be asked to be let in. But also, people feel as they're being “double-seen” with the camera because the camera serves as proof of the moment being captured, and that it has been seen. The camera can be a weapon when people feel exposed, but, on the other hand, the camera can have a positive effect if you create a trustful environment between you and your subject. It is a question of the gaze, which is also a question of there being a suitable distance between the camera and the people in front of it. The framing defines if you are either meeting someone on equal terms, or objectifying them. Also, it is a matter of our preconceptions in relation to documentary film and fiction. When you are filming reality, it might look like a documentary, but, at the same time, there might be something in the framing that looks almost prearranged or artificial, and then it becomes clear to the spectator that it is not simply reality, but one version of the story. So, by editing, for example, a filmmaker can remind the spectator that this is just a film made by someone who decided to do it like this.
You mentioned that you were interested in having a story. Can this be traced back to your studies and degree in literature?
I studied literature because I was interested in stories, and I am still interested in stories, so it is definitely related. I studied literature because I didn’t dare study art at that time. When I started studying art, I thought that I had wasted my time by studying literature, but now those three years have become an important tool. When I work with my material, I deal with it in the same way I would deal with literature. I am carrying out some form of textual analysis, so there is a very strong parallel. But I would also like to emphasise that there have been literary works that have changed my world perception and that have affected my mind frame. And there is a very blurry borderline between literature and my own personal experience. My perception of the world is a mix of both literature and my own personal experiences.
For every recording I have of somebody, I could make this person look unattractive or stupid through editing, if I wanted to. The power of editing is incredible! So, each time I edit, I create my version of the meetings I have had, and I have a responsibility with regards to the choices I make. It would be no excuse to say afterwards: “But it just happened like that.” My subjectivity can be traced through my editing.