What is the act of writing for the video artist Eli Cortiñas? Born in 1979 in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain, Cortiñas’ practice surrounds the idea of challenging cinematic memory through analysing and re-editing existing footage or her own material.
Her video loops and assemblages are mainly created with found footage and film scenes from Arthaus classics of Buñuel and Truffaut as well as with newspaper materials and images from books from the 60’s and 70’s. They are analytically sharp and counteract gender stereotypical attributions, family conflicts of conflicts or bourgeois advancement fantasies. In her collages and object arrangements, Cortiñas creates an ambiguous and affirmative transparency for the projection of constructed outlooks of the emotional, ideological and cultic. Here, Eli Cortiñas, who lives and works in Berlin, speaks to Julia Rosenbaum from “StudioVisits” in her studio about her recent work, upcoming residencies and the role of a collector.
In your video works you mainly use film scenes from Arthaus productions. Why this recourse into film history?ELI CORTIÑAS
Film as a medium is very well suited to create an image of collective memory, to restore or establish temporary states of mind, independently from the course of history and for a moment in a particular time that is not necessary longer present. Literature, and certainly music, have the power to do that as well, but I have been strongly socialized with film, especially with art-house cinema since my childhood, so, going back to these films as the source material for my artistic work comes very natural to me. I do not only work with this type of films though – I’ve also turned in the past to mainstream formats, such as the James Bond saga, the adventure film genre, or the Disney animations. Lately I have been working with the misleading western-imagery of Africa and consequently with African films right after liberation of European colonies.
By “appropriating”, using film material from historical movies, do you consider this as documentary material?ELI CORTIÑAS
When you work with documentary you usually handle an enormous amount of material, hundreds of hours at times. So you have to decide very early on which lane to follow, which story to highlight, which “truth” is worth telling and if what you are going for would hold the entire film. It’s no so much about how you will compose the film but which one of them you will compose. The editing room is therefore where the film is actually being written and there is an accurate dramaturgical process needed in order to construct the so-called “real”. You achieve that through a methodical dramaturgy, so in that sense Mise en scène is everything to documentary and that dramaturgical construction to a certain degree doesn’t differ much from the one fictional film is based on. The boundaries are very blurry. To answer your question with another question – when does history start to be a document and when do we call that document an “archive”?
Often sequences appear in English, Spanish, Italian or French. What is the importance of language in your work?ELI CORTIÑAS
I understand language as an image in the first place. Far beyond the idiom, which can serve as a container for information, language is for me a color, a sound, which can be historically and geographically full of traces and inherited cultural imagery. The materials I appropriate bring an original language naturally with them. Sometimes I happen to speak the given language, but it’s not an obstacle for me if that isn’t the case. I help myself with subtitles or I ask someone to look at it with me and to act as a translator. I never hire a professional translator though, I prefer someone who is a polyglot or whose language is indigenous of a place that has been colonized by another language. A person who translates, also interprets – something that shapes the translation enormously and that’s the eternal paradigm of translation. Subtitles and translation convey endless possibilities for “failure”. I consciously choose that as my point of departure, relating to language not only through meaning but through the emotions and links it creates with ones experiences. You are not completely in control of the meaning you create but your intuition and own relationship to the sound and color of that language guides you, frees you to compose as an artist, and changes the way you construct.
Both in the videos and in the collages, women’s figures always play an important role. Do you formulate a gender policy critique?ELI CORTIÑAS
I would say that I try to review the role assigned to women in history through film and other media, emphasizing those characters that debate themselves between the “oikos” and the outside. I’m interested in the dialectic between authenticity and interpretation within the fruitless and sometimes violent pursuit of female identity. Frustration plays an important role as the engine that keeps trying and to accentuate what hasn’t been achieved yet. The violence comes from an expectation forced upon a cultural body, inscribed on to a gender, which tries to escape that same expectation over the course of history.
Your latest film “The Most Given of Givens” is from 2016. The 3-channel video was created in the context of the Karl Schmidt-Rottluff grant. How did the project deal with colonial history in the film?ELI CORTIÑAS
I was looking at the first Tarzan movies produced in Hollywood and came across an imagery that unsettled me profoundly. There is a scene along the film “Tarzan, the Ape Man” in which we see the population of a particular unmentioned area in Africa, interacting with the American film actors through a rear projection set in a Hollywood studio. I read later about this footage being recorded by a second unit crew who flew to the African continent in order to bring the “real” Africa to the Hollywood studios. The clash between these two very different visual approaches, the ethnographical one, where the asymmetry of power is shown through a camera which openly studies an object, trying to engage with scenes full of mystical endeavors for the western eye versus the well rehearsed and perfectly lighten studio shots, as a demonstration of the elaborated visual range the Hollywood machinery is capable of, was striking to me. Needless to say that the openly racist point of view of the literature that serves as the base for the famous Tarzan film saga is already hardly manageable for anyone having its mind in the right place, but studying not only those films but more recent approaches within the genre of adventure it worried me to see how this type of narration continues to be reproduced without questioning itself or being seriously reconsidered. Examples like James Cameron’s “Avatar”, the new Tarzan movie or the whole Disney production are just a few examples which come to show that these particular genres have not been decolonized at all. It was key to me while handling those narratives to go deeper into the question raised by thinking of a colonized body being subjected within the colonial times to a filmic imagery, which not only strengthened the hierarchies of reigning power, but also wasn’t able to mirror the realities, needs, dreams or projections of the colonized. That’s why I decided to juxtapose the ethnographical Hollywood to Moustapha Alassane’s “Le Retour d’un Aventurier”, “Les cowboys sont noirs” from Serge Moati or Ousmane Sembène‘s “La Noire D”’ among many others, or to use the anti-imperialist and anti-colonial references of “Les Statues Meurent Aussi”, a film commissioned for Chris Marker and Alain Resnais by the literary review and publishing house Présence Africaine. Another aspect I was trying to highlight in the work was the contradictory representation of nature in the western sense within the adventure genre. In the myth of Tarzan, both origins flow together; he is white and simultaneously a wild animal. He is the sculptural body of Classicism or the Renaissance who grew up in the midst of the jungle but remains remote from millennial cultures, which have a place in that same nature he is reining.
In which collection would you love to see the work most?ELI CORTIÑAS
I always like to be in good company, that’s key to me and to the collections I like being part of.
Have you ever created a commission work for someone?ELI CORTIÑAS
It’s not how I usually work but as long as the work represents what I stand for, it can be an interesting endeavor.
In the coming year, you will be taking part in an artist-in-residency program at the “Villa Sträuli” for three months – a house in Winterthur that was a lively place of cultural encounters during Doris Sträuli-Keller’s lifetime. How important are these residencies for you?ELI CORTIÑAS
I will be in Argentina for a few months before that. The Berliner Senate just gave me a travel grant to show my work in Buenos Aires and to travel to Patagonia where I’ll be filming for a new video piece. I will also be in the Villa Sträuli in the spring. Together with Tomás Bartoletti I will be developing a transcultural project that connects Bolivia, Peru and Switzerland. So, to answer your question, yes, residencies and grants are extremely important for the development of an artist’s work. Financial freedom and the possibility of a geographical and cultural displacement always enriches one’s own practice.
In addition to making art you also teach – can you tell us why you made the decision to also do this? Is it important for you to influence the upcoming artistic generation?ELI CORTIÑAS
I’ve never been a big fan of the asymmetry between the role of professor and student. Even though I have more experience than my students in certain fields I try to encounter them as artists, as colleagues. When I was asked to teach in Kassel I remember asking myself “What did I enjoy the most when I was a student?”, what “fed” me back then and what did I miss? I was very lucky with my professors and my time at the academy was amazing for me to grow and in a way I have tried as a professor to evoke what nurtured and feed me while I was a student. I created an extensive program focusing on video art, cinema, performance and theater, and discussed urgent theoretical and critical practices. It has definitely not only inspired me but also has fed me as an artist immensely. Working as a professor is extremely rewarding, one of the most rewarding things I have ever done besides doing my own work.
As an artist, how do you perceive “the collector”? Do you find the act of collecting a bit strange?ELI CORTIÑAS
Well, I have never perceived the collector as “the collector”, I don’t think about that figure like an “Other”. With the exception of corporations or public collections we are in most cases talking about human beings with certain interests, concerns and urgencies that surround themselves with art. I love art and artists myself, so I totally get that need. Of course there are very different types of collectors and collections and I don’t agree with certain politics where collecting is use as a tool to create tolerance towards dubious practices and funding, but besides such exceptions I must say I have a rather natural relationship to the idea of collecting and the people behind it.
All installation shots taken by Michael Danner
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