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Interview with Marianna Simnett - Akademie - Kunsthalle Zürich

Interview with Marianna Simnett

Before Marianna Simnett's exhibition LAB RATS opened at the Kunsthalle Zürich, Simnett and Kunsthalle Director Daniel Baumann sat down together to discuss the works she is showing. This is what emerged.

Daniel Baumann: Blood In My Milk is a work made over four years which began as four separate films [The Udder, Blood, Blue Roses and Worst Gift]. Before we talk about how they all came together, can you tell me what led you from one film to the next?

Marianna Simnett: It was a hopscotch journey. In The Udder, the first film of the series, I estab- lish the udder of a cow as a nose, a phallus and a teat, masculine and feminine, biological and technological. I indicate, through editing and montage, the cutting of the teat as akin to the cutting of the nose of the child, right? From the beginning there is a narrative of infection, contamination.

I was obsessed by saints and martyrs, self-mutilating women who would cut off parts of their body in the name of virtue. As a filmmaker, it was interesting to link the violent, gruesome cutting of a body to the technical cutting of a film. I was fascinated by the Freudian case study of Emma Eckstein, who suffered severe haemorrhages and nearly died.

DB: Can you explain the Eckstein story?

MS: Wilhelm Fliess was an otolaryngologist and friend of Freud. There are letters, homo-erotic correspondence [The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887- 1904]. There’s only one half, Freud to Fliess, but you can invent the other half. It’s very romantic.

Fliess had a wild theory that you could cut out patients’ inferior turbinate bones [part of the nasal cavity] to cure them of symptoms like menstrual problems, stomach cramps, head- aches and masturbation. So he performed the operation on several female patients. With Emma it went disastrously wrong. They forgot to remove the gauze packing. A nurse discovered it, pulled it out, and then there was a gush of blood. She suffered necrosis, her face had been rotting from the inside. She was permanently disfigured.

DB: Because of that surgery?

MS: Yes. And there is another story about cutting off your nose to spite your face. St. Ebbe, who was being invaded by the Vikings, and who feared impending rape, cut off her nose and upper lip, and urged the other sisters to do the same, so that she would save her virtue. She would be too ugly for the men to rape. When the Vikings came they were so angry that they threw the women in the monastery and burnt it down. As punishment.

DB: For being ugly.

MS: For fucking with their plan. After making The Udder and Blood, the next obvious place to go was veins. When I was a child, I was staring at the bulbous blue veins on my mother’s legs. I was tiny at the time and I remember saying “Look at all your blue roses!” and she got angry. I wasn’t trying to insult her; I saw her veins as a blue rose.

When shooting The Udder, we cut the udder open in a veterinary college where they dissect animals – sheep, ostriches, elephants. The anatomist told me “We’ve got cockroaches on treadmills next door!” His office was full of cyclopes, cows that looked like footballs, with no eyes or ears, teeth growing out of fur, freakish blobs and fused limbs. It was a goldmine. I ate it all up.

A couple of years later I called him up about the cockroaches. “Oh no, they’ve gone to America.” I found a newspaper article and discovered Dr. Hong Liang, inventor of the cyborg cockroach. She works at Texas A&M University with a bunch of PhD students who I embroiled into my film. The university is located next to Disaster City, 52 acres of land solely dedicated to the reconstruction and simulation of disasters for training. They have earthquakes, fallen buildings, nuclear leaks, fires, you name it. The whole place is designed like a miniature city.

DB: Like Disneyland.

MS: Disneyland for disasters. It’s nuts. They’re hoping to send the cockroaches into these disaster zones, as they can crawl into small spaces to help humans. They implant the cock- roaches with electrodes to steer them left or right. We already know how robust cockroaches are and that they will outlive humans. They’ve figured that the Cronenberg hybrid, the ultimate Terminator, is better than a computer. The cockroach has so much strength alive that you don’t want to kill it, but augment it.

DB: How did you get these people to sing? Are all the people singing in that scene lab scientists?

MS: They spend their lives in a basement with millions of cockroaches. They were shy but so up for it. Hong’s voice is scratchy but completely gorgeous. The film’s charm is in these amateur, vulnerable performances.

DB: So then came Worst Gift?

MS: Well, no. I then made The Needle and the Larynx and Faint with Light. Then Worst Gift. I was interested in Botox as a substance we ingest, an invisible bacterium, a pharmakon with fatal but also curative properties. It was two years later, and the world had changed. It was less about trying to construct identity, and more about what is infiltrating our bodies and if we can say we are even human.

DB: Once you had done these four films they stood alone. How did you get the idea of putting them together?

MS: The New Museum in New York asked me to do a show and I didn’t want a boring, mini early-stage retrospective. I was bouncing along the road with my friend the writer Charlie Fox, and I was nearly sick because I suddenly knew what I had to do. An epic universe. Together they constitute a giant infected narrative. The blood, the milk, the veins, the Botox. The surgeon putting on his gloves. And the characters who leap from one film to the next.

DB: How did you attack it, then? Once you’d decided you were going to bring it together?

MS: The narratives are already disjointed, associative. There are multiple worlds within the same story. We jump from documentary to fiction...

DB: ... inside to outside...

MS: ... and I wanted to make a cocooned environment, where it would be overwhelmingly impregnated with images, so that it’s impossible to see them all at once. I’m giving everything but on the other hand you can’t see everything.

DB: A double bind?

MS: It’s a reflection on how we see the world anyway and the perspectives that we choose to focus on and those we ignore. There are moments of unison and chorus, the songs and the moments when all the screens behave in the same way. Falling apart and coming together.

DB: So my impression of Blood In My Milk is that you moved towards abstraction. Both on a narrative and on a visual level.

MS: Yes, I didn’t want people to sit through linear films one after the other. I wanted it to be a space where people could become frightened or chill out.

DB: So what is the role of the singing?

MS: The singing, the music which I worked on with Lucinda Chua, is a moment of unison in an otherwise fragmented world. Some of it is very sorrowful, like a lament. It’s also a relief from the horror. Music is an infection, it will ring around in your head and you’ll go home singing it at night. You’ll catch yourself singing about mastitis. Wonderful.

DB: Blood In My Milk mobilises fairy tale, documentary, musical and nightmare, covering themes of society, control, escape and restraint. The work moves through many different genres. At the same time, the film constructs a body. It starts with the breast, the penis, from there it goes to the voice and the hands of the herdsman, then the eye, the nose, the leg and voilà, you have the full body.

MS: Yes. That’s why I had to stop.

DB: What?!

MS: Well I completed the body.

DB: But you don’t finish at the leg. Once you’ve done the body you extend it to the machine. At the end, the protagonist goes into this plant almost like a James Bond agent, wearing sparkling slippers.

MS: At first the female protagonist is cutting off her face or lying on a bed. By the end she gains agency.

DB: Blood In My Milk is a complex, messy narrative of what makes us human. Faint with Light operates in the opposite way. It consists of only a few elements working against or with each other: breath, fainting and light.

MS: Fainting is about absence of self, and it required me to have an absence of images. You can show it but then...

DB: ... it becomes illustration.

MS: Or I repeat the problematic image of the hysterical swooning woman. I didn’t want to portray myself as a falling flower.

DB: Blood In My Milk is a narrative on the verge of falling apart. It’s desperately held together by form.

MS: What would it be without form?

DB: Chaos. Faint with Light is the same. When you faint, you fall apart. MS: But I am also continually reviving, endlessly resuscitating.

DB: Becoming oneself but dissolving. What if fainting is the result of too much of yourself? If you are overwhelmed and you faint it’s because there’s too much and you can’t handle it. You opt out. You become your whole self except that...

MS: ... you’re gone.

All images video stills from Marianna Simnett, Blood in My Milk, 2018, first two images courtesy the artist and Comar, image three and four courtesy the artist and Matt's Gallery