Split Screen

By Chris Darke

today-eije-liisa-ahtila-2.jpgToday, by E-L A, 1996/97

Finnish artist film-maker Eije-Liisa Ahtila in conversation

Before we all get thoroughly bored and Brit-cynical over the ‘is it art, is it cinema?’ debate, let’s consider the example of Eije-Liisa Ahtila. Throughout the 1990s, the 43 year-old Finnish artist has produced a striking body of work that crosses the borders separating the gallery, cinema and television. “I don’t want a fixed position,” she told me in April as her first UK retrospective Real Characters, Invented Worlds was installed at Tate Modern. “I think I am both a visual artist and a film-maker.”

Ahtila’s work is perhaps the foremost example, alongside the likes of artist-film-maker Salla Tykka and Citibank-prizewinning photographer Elina Brotherus, of the revitalisation of film, video and photography evident in Finland over the past decade. The irony is that while experimental film-making there has moved into the gallery and become revitalised by this very trajectory, (and just as much in the UK) here we are much more likely to see this sort of work than we are to see any Finnish feature films (beyond occasional screenings of Aki Kaurismaki’s idiosyncratic oeuvre). Ahtila’s work retains a distinctive ‘Finnishness’ but its boldest steps have been in the exploration of narrative forms and in its incorporation of storytelling into artist’s film.

wind-eije-liisa-ahtila.jpgThe Wind (installation shot) by E-L A, 2002

Chris Darke: How do you feel as an artist making films for the gallery? Do you have any general thoughts about the way this particular practice has been evolving over the last ten years?

Eije-Liisa Ahtila: I think it’s really obvious what’s going on. The moving image is the medium through which people see what’s happening around them and how they get information about society. It’s the most common way of interpreting our society. It’s no wonder that artists want to make work with moving images. In fact, I’d rather talk about ‘moving images’ than video or film because it’s difficult to talk about ‘video-art’ nowadays.

CD: Is that partly because ‘video-art’ now seems like an historical term that relates to the 1960s and the 1970s and that the digital moment ended ‘video-art’?

E-LA: Not really, because one way of defining video art has to do with technical things but, on the other hand, there’s a lot of moving image work that really has its roots in ‘video-art’. When I talk about ‘video-art’ I more or less think about the tradition linked to performance and using the camera to record performances. I went to see the Sam Taylor-Wood show (Hayward Gallery, London Spring 2002) and she’s a good example. I could easily link her work to that kind of tradition.

CD: Is there an active relationship between the film and art worlds in Finland?

E-LA: The film world is pretty conservative. It’s very difficult to convince them that visual artists have anything to contribute. They’re still quite separate.

wind-eije-liisa-ahtila-1.jpgThe Wind, by E-L A, 2002

CD: Why do you think that separation exists?

E-LA: It has to do with money. It’s a small country and the amount of money that film gets from the state is small. A lot of people want to make films so there’s a lot of competition. What’s really lacking is a forum where these issues can be talked about. Most of the film magazines are really conservative. I hope that’s changing because there are some new festivals now that younger people have started, like Avanto (the Helsinki-based Media Arts Festival).

CD: Do you yourself have references that derive from film-making?

E-LA: It’s difficult to say. During the 1980s I saw almost all of Fassbinder’s films. Antonioni’s early films also really interest me, particularly his way of using space and architecture, that’s very important for me. Then Bergman and the human dramas, the dialogue and maybe even the characters.

present-eije-liisa-ahtila.jpgThe Present, by E-L A, 2002

CD: You studied at the London College of Printing and at UCLA in the States.

E-LA: I was in the UCLA extension programme, an evening school. It was a really important time. My art before that was traditionally conceptually-oriented and I felt that it was extremely important for me to have the possibility to go deeper and study ways of expression in the medium, like cinematography and editing. In LA I studied with a cinematographer and he showed examples of solutions that other cinematographers have had in certain situations and how to create meaning with the medium. What was very important for me was to learn how to tell a story using sound and images, how to break up the story and use a structure that had something to do with the subject matter.

CD: In a way it’s a very traditional way of thinking how to work with film.

E-LA: Perhaps what I do is to bring the traditional way of making film closer to the experimental film and still have a story. Usually when I work I have a certain thing that I want to study and explore. Like with If 6 Was 9 (Jos 6 Olis 9, 1995-6), it’s a three projection piece and I wanted to study how to tell a story with three images where the story unfolds simultaneously. It was the problematics of editing that were the most important thing in that work for me. I always try to work in a way with the form and the structure because the subject matter of that film was teenage girls and their sexuality. The girls are in a stage of their life when they are no longer children but not women yet, it’s not a stable situation. So the splitting into three could correspond to that and be suitable to the topic. The editing goes along the three screens and only sometimes do you have a whole image held on all three. Usually when I work I make an installation version and a 35mm film version of the same material so that if I have three screens I have much more material available.

today-eije-liisa-ahtila.jpgToday, by E-L A, 1996/97

Another example is Consolation Service (Lohdutusseremonia, 1999). It’s about the divorce of a young man and woman and the presentation is like a split screen with two projections. With that I wanted to explore what happens to a story when you see it on one screen and then on two. It was very interesting, because when you are watching something on a traditional single-screen the best possible place is created for the viewer to hear and see the story. But when you are in a two-screen installation, the viewer needs to make decisions all the time about what’s happening. For example, it’s not so easy to identify who the main character is.

CD: When you watch films or TV now you must notice the increasing use of screens within screens, the fact that the surface is fragmented simply because it’s technically possible. Does this phenomenon interest you?

E-LA: Personally, I don’t think split-screen works on TV. It’s a gimmick. For me, the split-screen is always a physical experience. If you have it in an installation it has to do with physical presence, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to start to work with the moving image. It is very interesting to work with the medium in such a way that the information is in the sounds, the rhythm and the story and the viewer uses their senses to make the meaning out of these corresponding things. Like Me, We, Okay, Gray (1993) where the idea was to do a piece that was similar to adverts. I wanted it to be shown on TV and then also in gallery spaces as an installation. I remember getting interested in adverts when I was at home and the TV was on but I wasn’t really watching it. I saw an advert twice and after the second time I thought that this was a different version of the same advert. I wondered what could be done with that. When I made those pieces the idea was to pack the information in. I know that they had to be short. Since they’re ninety second pieces they’re a bit too long. If they were shown as adverts you could see them repeatedly and the second time you’d see some information that was different from the first time. If you see them among other adverts I really think that they work differently because then you have a certain way of looking at them.

CD: You often use documentary source material and then move it into a fictional representation in your work.

E-LA: I recently made an hour long film called Love is a Treasure (Rakkaus On Aarre, 2002). It includes five episodes about women who have gone through psychosis and I have made installation versions of the last two episodes. I also made The Present (Lahja, 2001), a five monitor installation with a series of very short clips of between a minute to two minutes from the same material. Part of that installation also includes 30 second pieces that I have tried to show on TV at the same time as the monitor pieces are shown in a museum or gallery. The other two works that derive from it are The Wind (Tuuli, 2002) and The House (Talo, 2002), which is not quite completed yet.

wind-eije-liisa-ahtila-2.jpgThe Wind, by E-L A, 2002

When I start writing I like to know that the things I am writing might have happened. I like to know that I am walking on firm ground. I got all the material from discussions I had with seven women but none of the stories I wrote is exactly the same as any of theirs. I interviewed them, read through the recordings and then read more widely. That’s a very typical way of working for me. I need really to know the material. I read it and read it and that takes some time. After that, I’m quite fast when I write the script and I’ll write three or four versions.

CD: This theme of breakdown and psychosis that runs throughout your work...

E-LA: How it started was that in the summer of 1995 a friend who was working in a day-care centre for people who had been ill told me that he knew a story that might interest me. One of his patients was this ‘Aki’ character, it’s not his real name of course. When I was making that work, it was the first time in my life that I got information about the world of schizophrenics and I found it really interesting. Also, the breaking of the narrative order has similarities with the breakdown of the mind. It feels to me really compelling and interesting material to work with. Especially in regard to the story and narration. But I don’t intend to do films about mad people all my life! It gives me interesting material to explore the breaking-up of the story. It also has to do with the way that I want to present reality. The style is very everyday and realistic and these elements are combined with fantasy elements, such as in Consolation Service. I’m interested in how the films break the usual logic and the way we are told how we should use the chronology and the way that chronology is created. This is really what I am interested in, how we could break that and still have a meaning created.

CD: In the gallery there’s a piece of text that runs around the wall and the last part of it reads: “In the end, narratives are a matter of perspective”. Can you explain what you mean by this?

E-LA: When you write something, when you do a script or when you approach a certain topic the important thing is to choose a certain perspective in regard to the characters and to the story. It’s similar when you stand on a hill and want to take a picture of the landscape, you have to choose how you want to frame it. With a story you have to choose how you want to tell it and where you want to put the emphasis. Like with If 6 Was 9 I wanted to tell a story about people who were the least heard in our society, teenage girls. And with the women who have gone through psychosis, I wanted to tell a story about them but not like they were ‘poor patients’. I want to show things in the society around us, that’s my way of taking part. You could say that it’s my way of being political and of taking responsibility.

Chris Darke is a writer, critic and lecturer. His essay collection Light Readings is published by Wallflower Press.