Atom Egoyan In Conversation With David Markus

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Atom Egoyan and Kutlug Ataman with stills from their work ‘Auroras/Testimony’

This June witnessed the inaugural run of LuminaTO, a heavily funded new arts festival that seeks to enshrine the city of Toronto as North America’s newest cultural capital. The festival featured world premieres in theatre, dance, music, and the visual arts. It was also the setting for a new collaborative work between Canadian-Armenian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, who sat on LuminaTO’s artistic committee, and Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman.

‘Auroras/Testimony’ is really two separate video installations, divided by partition, whose combined effect results from the overlapping thematic orientation of the artists involved. Ataman’s work is a single-channel documentary interview between the artist and his aging former caretaker, a survivor of the Armenian genocide. Egoyan’s work features the projected faces of seven actresses each giving their own, carefully modulated performance of the little-known figure of Aurora Mardiganian.

Aurora was an Armenian émigré whose story was fastened upon by movie producer Harvey Gates and made into a film in 1919 of which only a few grainy minutes survive today. As fascinating as Aurora‚s heartrending tale itself are the circumstances under which it was exploited by early commercial cinema. Aurora was cast as herself in the production, and afterward embarked on a nation-wide publicity tour that was delayed when the survivor-turned-actress suffered an emotional breakdown. Subsequently, seven alternate ‘Auroras’ were contracted to fill in for the original.

It is this issue of ‘authenticity” that Egoyan’s work is most concerned with. As a theme, the immeasurable accuracy of historical narrative has emerged repeatedly in his work, most ostensibly in the critically acclaimed, feature-length film Ararat (Miramax, 2002), which focuses on events surrounding the 1915-1917 Turkish slaughter of up to a million Armenians – an act officially recognized as genocide by most Western nations, but denied, in that characterization, by the Turkish government.

The next stop for ‘Auroras/Testimony’ is the Istanbul Biennale, where it is expected to create a stir for its graphic allusions to what has remained a very controversial topic.

Egoyan’s films recently underwent a retrospective at Centre Pompidou in Paris. He is currently working on a new film called Adoration. We spoke the morning following LuminaTO’s closing events.

DAVID MARKUS: First of all, what was your involvement in LuminaTO, and how successful do you think the festival was overall?

ATOM EGOYAN: I was asked to participate as an artistic advisor and in its early stages that was a crucial role because we didn’t have [Festival CEO] Janice Price or any of the other members of the team involved at that time. So for this initial year I think something quite miraculous occurred which was that in the space of a little over a year this came together in a focused and unexpectedly successful way. Toronto is going through a major cultural Renaissance, and I think this festival defined that.

DM: Most people know you for your feature length films. How long have you been making video art and is this something you will continue to do?

AE: I’ve been involved in making video art for about ten years now. This is the first time I have ever presented a piece in Toronto. There was a collaboration I did with the Portuguese artist Juliao Sarmento which was presented at the Venice Biennale in 2000, and then there was a piece I did with Artangel in London which was presented in 2002, and then another large-scale presentation at the Montreal Musée d’Art Contemporain, which was also presented in 2002. I have welcomed all of these opportunities because there were a number of formal considerations I was able to work into my earlier films which I‚ve had to relinquish as the work has become more ‘traditional’ I suppose – so these are real opportunities to engage a viewer that I know is by nature more curious and open than the traditional film goer.

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Still from ‘Steenbeckett’, 2002

DM: In your interview with [Art Gallery of Ontario Director] Bruce Ferguson you talked about the differences between the gallery and the movie theatre. From your perspective what are the advantages and disadvantages of the gallery setting versus the cinema?

AE: Well the disadvantages have to do with access. Right now, for example, I’m dealing with people who are coming back into town and who would like to see the piece and can’t. There is no DVD I can send them. There is no way that they can experience what that space was about. I’m used to that coming
from theatre. I’m used to the ephemeral nature of a presentation, and the fact that it will only now exist in the minds of the people who happened to have witnessed it. But that’s a little frustrating, and one does become used to this idea of the film that, yes, is best experienced on the big screen, but can also be referenced, quite accurately, in a number of different formats. With an installation, though there might be an archival recording, and stills, and certainly there will be descriptions of it – none of that will come close to the physical experience of what is being negotiated in that space.

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Still from Atom Egoyan’s ‘Auroras’

DM: You suggested that one way to increase the viewing experience, with ‘Auroras’ was to follow an individual face throughout the entirety of the video.

AE: That was my particular take and a number of people followed that. The thing that that raises is the notion of performance, but I had some misgivings about having said that, because the interesting thing about a piece like this is that there is no orthodoxy. The thing about listening to an artist too carefully is that you tend to get overwhelmed by their particular revelation of a given moment.

DM: I found it powerful to take it in all at once, almost as though I was being attacked from all sides – as though I were being implicated in the story that these women were relating.

AE: That may have been the stronger experience. When I first was editing this, and I saw all seven faces on one band, there was something very compelling about that as well. It’s quite possible that in some future incarnation it is going to have a more unified presentation. But given that space – Art Core – it seemed right to make full use of the entire gallery. For future presentations I would like to be more involved in responding to the space itself. I love projecting against the walls themselves, not making it a monitored piece, but one that has to be interpreted given the dimensions I’m working with. I don’t think it will ever be bigger than what you saw here. In terms of scale this was the most extreme version of the piece. We were really pushing the technology in order to keep synchronization when the machines were that far apart.

DM: The text that accompanies the work talks about how Harvey Gates was quick to recognize the commercial potential of Aurora’s story. You’ve talked about Aurora as an early victim of celebrity, at the same time you must be aware that you resemble Gates to a degree insofar as you’ve said that the inspiration for the work began with the story of Aurora. What I’m wondering is how does one tread the line between an honest telling, or re-telling, and exploitation? Is your work more about returning a sense of dignity to this person’s life, or is it about revealing how any re-telling is problematized, as it were, by the rift between language and event, between fact and fiction?

AE: I’m very suspicious of this notion of how you can dignify a survivor’s story. What we see in Aurora are seven performers with various degrees of passivity and engagement. What fascinates me is how various people respond to different levels of engagement. Some people may find one performance way
over the top, whereas others need that sort of emotional release. But in every instance there is a fine line between what is entertaining and what is formulaic – as opposed to what is ‘authentic’. We have a sense sometimes that tales of extreme horror must be related with objective detachment in order for us to listen and absorb, but that also has limitations. You need only to look at the faces of some of the performers who are completely emotionless to understand the frustrations of that telling. And yet the
moment we introduce performance, it raises the very delicate question of whether history can only be passed through the success of the performance, and I think that was the question I tried to raise in my film Ararat. Does history rely on a film version? What happens if that film version is compromised? What if it’s not a good film? How do those factors situate this piece of history?

DM: Is there a sense in which your work responds directly, or indirectly, to Jewish holocaust history and the role that, for instance, the Shoah Foundation, and testimony as a whole, has played in the construction of historical narrative more generally as a result?

AE: I was just reading the statistics the other day. There are about 900 films that deal with the holocaust, and there are, I think, a total of ten that deal with the Armenian genocide, most of which have never been seen. Some of them are community efforts, which are really amateurish, so I think that what’s happened with holocaust representation is that just through the sheer number of pieces the very strong work has been able to survive and emerge. The role of the victim – for instance Anne Frank – in popular consciousness was, after the war, taken over by the survivor – the Elie Wiesel – and that became the symbol for the holocaust in peoples‚ minds. But with films like Schindler’s List it has now
transferred to Spielberg, or someone who is able to represent that, to engage a popular discourse around it through a media event. And that shift, though completely understandable, is complicated for me as an Armenian dealing with a history that has not been told through a popular film. What fascinated me about Aurora’s history is that there was a popular film made immediately after the event, which was lost, and so whatever status that may have had at the time has been completely forgotten. So what does it then mean to reignite this history by putting her back on the screen through these performers?

DM: A lot of your work has focused on reenactments of reenactments. Why does film lend itself so well to this sort of self-reflexivity?

AE: Because it so convincingly allows us to believe that what we are witnessing is real. From the moment the Lumière brothers recorded a train approaching the film camera, people were horrified, they thought what they were seeing had to be real. And I think that that almost childish, atavistic sort of approach we have to cinema has never really left us. We’re really not critical when we are watching a film image. That is also what is compelling about raising these issues in a gallery setting, because we are naturally more critical of a projected image in a gallery space even though when we see Kutlug’s Nanny, we subscribe to that documentary image an immediate authenticity to which my seven Auroras allude through their performativity.

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Still from Kutlug Ataman’s ‘Testimony’

DM: Let me ask you, then, to put a viewer on the screen as someone watching a film, as you did recently in the short you screened at Cannes, is that something that distances us from the presumed authenticity of the image? To what extent can film critique the imagistic society of which it is apart?

AE: There are a number of filters you can present within a narrative that remind the viewer of the artifact they are watching. That does intrude on the traditional golden rule of cinema, which is that the viewer should escape into that image, that there shouldn’t be a degree of self-consciousness. But I don’t know that you can raise those issues you’ve mentioned without creating a clear frame within which to watch them. Now, I think the real challenge is to incite all the pleasure, and the chaos, which we associate with commercial cinema, through those devices. That’s what makes the new Charlie Kauffman films so exciting to me. That you are aware of those devices.

DM: Even while they are being enacted upon you.

AE: Yes.

DM: How would you characterize the collaborative aspect of this project?

AE: The collaboration begins with my contact with Kutlug’s work over the years, which I’ve found really exciting and inspiring. It is ironic that my work is multi-screen and Kutlug’s is single-channel, because what I associate with his work is that multi-screen experience where the viewer has to negotiate with a number of different realities. I think that he is an extraordinary artist, and when this came up it seemed like an amazing opportunity to deal with this notion of testimony. The fact that he was raised with a genocide survivor and was able to remember that aspect of her history, and yet she is in this very curious place where, though she retains that history, she can’t recall it, she can’t summon it in detail. What I found really exciting was unexpected, and that was the way the two pieces reacted sonically to each other. That you could be in Kutlug’s room listening to his Nanny and hear the Auroras giving a clear description of something which was lost to us. And then you could be in my room, and over these performances you had the constant sound of this ‘authentic’ testimony filling in that space. What we do in Istanbul when it‚s remounted, I’m not quite sure. Kutlug is thinking of not using a wall, so that there is more visual contact. We’ll see how that works. What’s really exciting about this piece is that it will respond to the very specific, and provocative, placement of this history in a city where it is
somehow taboo. In that sense, it will be very different from how it was presented in Toronto, which is as it should be.

DM: Certain cultural theorists have suggested that the repression of mourning in relation to violent or traumatic events in patriarchal societies creates a sort of positive feedback pattern that fosters further aggression. What is the power of a female voice, or even a feminist voice, within the context of the traumatic event your work deals with?

AE: It’s not just a female voice, it is who is actually controlling that voice. In the case of the original Aurora, the producer was male and I don’t think that Aurora herself had any control. That is one of the most provocative aspects of her story. Her voice was never really hers to extend, it was always something outside of her. She was looking for her brother. Her need to get her voice out there was to make contact with a missing sibling. It was then consumed and exploited by commercial interests. One has to keep in mind that there was a tremendous Christian movement afoot in America at that time. We‚ve located the original poster from the movie, and it’s fascinating. It’s this vision of a lily white,
young, virginal figure literally being pulled away by this dark, monstrous, swarthy man. It’s a shocking image. There was this feeling that this was almost a crusade. Before Jihad was summoned, it was basically a Jihad against the Christian minorities of Turkey. The way that that was played by American interests at that moment was really quite shocking.

DM: Let me ask you an obvious question that goes along with what we are talking about – what is the significance of your and Kutlug’s respective national heritages to the work in question?

AE: In my case it’s even more complex because I’m an assimilated guy. I work very much within the Canadian context. I was raised here, even though I was born in Egypt, and I think that is reflected in my piece. The fact that it’s a multi-cultural cast, and it’s really talking about where stories of trauma are located within the community, country, and city that I work in. Armenian identity is basically divided between those who are raised in what is now independent Armenia and the diaspora culture. The diaspora culture is very difficult to generalize. It’s really based in the countries our grandparents settled in. I would always consider that my background coming to this piece is Canadian even before Armenian. Now Kutlug is in a very different place about that. There is this issue, though, of consciousness. To what degree is he aware of this history in terms of his upbringing, what he’s been allowed, or what he’s been exposed to? And certainly that issue arises in the diasporic experience as well. In the desire to assimilate and to be absorbed into a new culture, how much of your past do you hold onto? In my case that wasn‚t a huge part of my upbringing, my parents were proto-assimilationist as opposed to those who were raised within the Armenian community. I was raised outside of it. And these issues came to the forefront when I came to Toronto from the west coast.

DM: What does it mean for a major contemporary art museum like the Centre Pompidou to be holding a retrospective of your work?

AE: Two events happened in this past month, there was the retrospective and then there was Cannes, where I was showing my short film. One thing it does is you begin to gain a sense of how your work fits in. At the beginning of your career you want to produce as much work as possible so you can define anidentity that will give you a sense of legitimacy and certainly define and give you a career. At this point when you see that body of work presented the question is what does it add up to, what does it mean? There are certain concerns that have come up repeatedly. You have to remember that the Pompidou is just showing films, they aren’t showing these installations that I’ve done. What’s really become clear to me, and something that I’m going to have to consider, is that in the early part of my career, these formal considerations were woven into the texture of the film itself. That was something I began to surrender around the time of Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter. The thing about a film is that at the end of the day, to get the budget, you have a ninety minute scenario that is used as a blueprint for finding financing, so there is that formulaic aspect of it. This new film I’m working on, which is called Adoration, is an attempt to bring these formal issues back into the narrative format.

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