In the beginning of June, Moyra Davey premiered her most recent video Notes On Blue for the Walker Art Center’s 2015 Walker Moving Image Commissions. (The video is available for public viewing for a limited time at: http://www.walkerart.org/channel/2015/moyra-davey-notes-on-blue). Notes On Blue takes as its starting point Derek Jarman’s final 1993 film Blue. Visually, Blue is one 79 minute shot of Yves Klein’s International Blue, a resemblance of Jarman’s deteriorated eyesight. The voices of Nigel Terry, Tilda Swinton, and John Quentin, as well as Derek Jarman himself, compose an autobiographical oral narration of memory and daily experience alongside the ever-present color.
Notes On Blue continues Davey’s three decades-long production of discursive videos, essays, and more recently, postage-stamped photographs. Woven from multiple voices within a shared conversation of blindness, blueness, and confession, in the video Moyra repeats her pre-recorded script in voiceover as she listens to her own words in playback via an earpiece.
Notes On Blue. 2015. Video. Courtesy of Moyra Davey and The Walker Art Center.
Erin: The first segment in your video Notes On Blue features your early one minute 16 mm film Blue Ruin from ten years ago. Do you often save footage for reuse in the future?
Moyra: I realized when I started thinking about this commission, that Blue Ruin was germane to the new film. I often cannibalize older footage from my entries in the One Minute Film Festival that Jason Simon and I ran for ten years. I also do shoot stuff and just put it in a folder and keep it in mind.
Erin: Like a video diary.
Moyra: Kind of, yeah.
Erin: You mentioned during Notes On Blue that you were listening to youtube interviews with Sylvia Plath. Has access to internet sources changed the kind of research that you do? Would you have sought out that kind of interview in a library twenty years ago?
Moyra: Absolutely, the internet completely changed how I work. While writing “Notes On Photography & Accident” in 2006, I really started to use the internet. It’s such a handy tool. You get an idea, and you think “Oh, this is pertinent,” and you Google it, and you realize, yeah, it is, it was the same year as another thing — you fabricate a connection, and start to weave things together. It’s absolutely facilitated and enhanced the process of writing.
Erin: Does the element of surprise change? Before the internet, a surprising piece of information I would find in reading struck me much more than a surprise I might find now through the internet.
Moyra: Maybe it feels like it hits you deeper. Perhaps it feels more authentic, because you’re reading it in a published book…
Erin: Or harder to have found, like a secret –
Moyra: Exactly. It’s true. It definitely feels much more like a personal discovery — a find — than something on the internet that millions of people can easily access as well. On the other hand, it’s all about the idiosyncratic construction you make as a writer, so that even though the facts are there for all to ingest, it comes down to one’s interpretation, the particular slant you put on the material.
Erin: When The Walker Art Center commissioned you to make a video in response to Derek Jarman, you chose Jarman’s Blue, the Jarman film that is textually the closest to a book. Blue is a 79 minute voiceover atop a blue screen. This form of reading – listening to Jarman’s words – prompted your own written narrative. Your narrative is then read aloud, forming a loop of reading and writing. Similarly, your photographs pass hands through the mail, stamped and received by acquaintances before being considered works of art. Could you imagine making art outside of this system of passing hands?
Moyra: Passing hands, how do you mean?
Erin: Within your videos and essays especially, you are gathering people, staging a conversation between people who may not have met each other in their own lifetimes. You are passing information between historical figures, so that this transaction of information seems as important as the information itself.
Moyra: It’s about forging contacts between unlikely participants, like Fassbinder and PJ Harvey, or Borges and Derek Jarman. I get a lot of pleasure out of connecting disparate voices. It’s very gratifying when I read something by Fassbinder about story telling, and then come across a comment by PJ Harvey, and realize she’s saying almost the same thing in a slightly different way. Both of their comments, to the effect that ‘the more you put yourself into the story, the more that story will concern others as well,’ resonate with the way I feel about auto-fiction and boundaries. How much information can you divulge? What’s appropriate? What’s going over the edge? I’m fascinated by that line.
Erin: Derek Jarman’s physical limitation of blindness becomes the strong editorial voice in Blue. The narrative follows rumination on the color blue because blue is the only color visible to Jarman. Is there something to be said for a chance occurrence becoming the editing force in a piece of art, such as a response to a color?
Notes On Blue. 2015. Video. Courtesy of Moyra Davey and the Walker Art Center.
Moyra: When you’re limited, you come up with solutions you’d never have thought of. Limitation and chance can be really productive, giving you ideas born of processes that would not have occurred otherwise. It’s pretty exhilarating when that happens.
Erin: Not being able to anticipate every step.
Moyra: Yes, exactly. It’s the lifeblood of good art.
Erin: But it’s hard to stage that situation.
Moyra: You can’t stage it. It’s working with what gets dropped in your lap.
Erin: In Blue, do you think voiceover becomes equated with blindness?
Moyra: To some extent it does, because there’s no image, only color. You are thinking about what it’s like to just be a hearing individual, a sightless individual.
Erin: That works as well in your video, between both the out of focus nature of the camera when the subject is in close range and then also in your stilted reading of your own script.
Moyra: It was an experiment. I set up the camera in a narrow hallway in the apartment, knowing that I wanted to change the look from previous videos. In the past you can see a wide expanse of space. You can see a whole room. I set up the camera in such a way that the depth of field would be shallow, and I would be out of focus, or I would be backlit, very much in contrast to the look of Les Goddesses, where you see everything with great clarity.
Moyra: Yes, crisp. When I started to shoot Notes On Blue, I wasn’t convinced that I could use this device again: myself as the microphoned performer walking the rooms. Then I took a quick look at what I had shot, and I thought, oh this looks different enough. I ended up hiring this incredible editor named Alexander Kaluzhsky and he worked a kind of magic. He broke up all of the super-8 and the 16mm and inserted it into the narration. I am eternally grateful to him.
Erin: In that process, are you sitting with him, editing?
Moyra: I am. I’m making suggestions and he’s making suggestions. Filmmaking has always been a collaborative enterprise, and art making has been more traditionally solitary.
Erin: And you communicate both things – solitariness through textual communications.
Moyra: Reaching out from a private, solitary space.
Erin: The stiltedness of the speech from your reading of your own text, as well as the shallow depth of field of your video, reinforced the Jorges Luis Borges quote in Notes On Blue, when he says, “poetry must be aural, not visual.”
Moyra: Yes, the shots deny the viewer visual complexity. You’re not getting the full focus. You’re getting something blurred, a bit claustrophobic, so I think it definitely resonates.
Erin: The super-8 film in your video looks a little hallucinatory, the way that some of the speaking in Jarman’s film sounds hallucinatory, a side affect often accompanying a physical demise. Was your super 8-footage an escape from the body and the neuroses of the body?
Moyra: I was trying for that – a celebratory escape in the spirit of Jarman’s super-8.
Notes On Blue. 2015. Video. Courtesy of Moyra Davey and The Walker Art Center.
Erin: As well, Blue is a diary of Jarman’s sobering life condition as lived through his imagination. Your videos are recorded in the sober reality of the rooms of your apartment, and yet, this sober delivery of information encourages a wandering mind in the viewer. The camera takes views out of your windows, and you narrate as you pace from room to room in your home. Do you find that a reduced environment leads to a wandering mind?
Moyra: A friend of mine just wrote to me, and she said that even though the ‘mise-en-scene’ is reduced visually, there are all these details. In the bathroom, you can see cans of cleaning powder, Barkeeper’s Friend, there’s kind of a grungy look. She said her mind wandered because it was taking in these meager details.
Erin: Is that also a reflection of your own practice, of a wandering mind between sources, or the way you generate writing?
Moyra: I have a very wandering mind, and I guess it’s useful and sometimes it’s to my detriment. But yes, you could say that wandering the apartment is a reflection of my thinking and writing processes.
Erin: I think it seems like a deliberate working method to work through diversions or distractions –
Moyra: And to work through fragments, because you can have a shorter attention span. You can complete a fragment and then put it together with something else. I don’t know how people write long books where they have to keep the whole picture in mind. It seems staggering to me.
Erin: I wonder too, and I think the writer must storyboard the piece like a long film through index cards. Can you speak about your choice to narrate through a recited, rather than memorized, script? Does it slow the viewer down in order to enable understanding?
Moyra: Absolutely, because I’m listening to my recorded script through an earpiece and then repeating what I hear. I think the halting nature and the repetitions and the stuttering sometimes mimic a more naturalized conversation. I’m trying to mimic a person thinking and speaking rather than reciting from memory or reading.
Erin: Like the conversation we’re having now?
Moyra: Exactly. I think that method – leaving in all the slips and not having it be perfect and having some of the words get garbled – does come closer to mimicking natural speech.
Erin: Do you have the ability to speak at your most direct when you record yourself speaking?
Moyra: It frees me to a certain extent, because in the writing I’ve already figured out what I’m comfortable saying. It happens that I’ll write something, narrate it for the camera, and see that it doesn’t work — it’s a cliché, it’s too much. When you perform something for the camera and see the playback, it makes you a better editor of your own writing.
Erin: To cut a jumbled sentence.
Moyra: Definitely. In Fifty Minutes I didn’t use the ear piece. I was either memorizing or reading, and I realized that the parts where I gave a perfect delivery were far less interesting than the takes where I made a mistake, because in those takes something spontaneous and unexpected is happening. You see me reacting to a fumble and that’s way more interesting than the unflawed take.
Erin: Performing a reading is certainly performative.
Moyra: I do think of it as performative. I’m performing myself. I’m performing not myself. I do hope it comes across that way, because I don’t want it to read as straight autobiography.
Erin: It reads as you channeling all of these people together into an edited section of your biography. Do you think the extras that you bring into conversation in your videos are people you idolize in some way?
Moyra: In My Saints, I had Gregg Bordowitz, I had my nieces and nephews. I do idolize Gregg. He was in another video as well (My Necropolis). He is an incredible responder. You give him any piece of text and he’ll have a totally original, brilliant take, on the spot. All my subjects are people I adore. With my nieces and nephews, I had no idea how they’d respond, and I was astonished by the things they said. My nephew, Leo, in My Saints – he didn’t even read the text. It was read to him over the phone. He hung up and he delivered this incredibly profound interpretation of the Jean Genet passage from The Thief’s Journal. I ended up idolizing all of them – they, including Genet, are the titular saints of My Saints.
Erin: And Genet for example? Is he an idol or an ambivalent character?
Moyra: I’m more ambivalent.
Erin: You still are, after all of the research?
Moyra: He’s someone I idolize. He was an incredible writer and public figure, but on a visceral level, I have trouble with some of the novels, and I write about that conflict, even the revulsion, in Burn The Diaries. In some ways the ambivalence was the motor for the entire project.
Erin: I’ve been thinking about idols lately, and what it is that anyone wants from their idols. Is it just to be near them? What is wanted?
Moyra: In the case of Genet, and perhaps many other idols, even ambivalent idols, if there’s friction, it can be more productive than focusing on someone you idolize in a pure way. The resistance, if you try and analyze it, gives way to new thoughts, with unexpected twists and turns. It’s the old adage: you figure out what you’re thinking by writing it. And perhaps an irritant gives you more to sink your teeth into.