Isabel Alsina-Reynolds

10th-24th July 2019

Chargrilled, Pre-Bought, 2016. Video, 09:49.

A family act out an occult ritual as a break from their middle class rural setting: They burn the week. An occult look at the phrase ‘what happens behind closed doors’, filmed on a lay-line in Dorset.

Full Interview

Georgie Brinkman (Curator, The New Flesh): To begin, please could you introduce your work and give us an overview of some of the ideas or research areas that are driving the work?

Isabel Alsina-Reynolds (Artist): I am called Isabel Alsina-Reynolds and I am a filmmaker. I suppose my work stems from, or is quite interested in, things to do with disruption - in all different types of disruption. Specifically with that film I was interested in the disruptions that happen on a regular basis within a mundane or seemingly everyday scenario. So referencing things to do with mythology or spiritualism but in a larger, more broad sense. And seeing how those things can infiltrate in a normal/everyday scenario.

Within this piece of work I was specifically interested in stuff to do with class systems and how they work, and a privilege that is attached to certain kind of spiritualism that I noticed when my mum moved out to Dorset to live on a lay-line. She is quite an inspiration behind this film because I feel that she is very much an embodiment of duality, of being able to be two things at once. Someone that I grew up with who had a lot of spiritualism, but she is also someone who is very much “working class ’til I die”. But then she’s found herself in this quite privileged position.

I found it very funny because I observed all these nuances of new-age spiritualism, and broad cultural references that all amalgamate in this sense of mindfulness. I wasn’t really interested in, and don’t want to take to the piss out of that, or belittle that, I suppose I was just interested in her position within all of this, which is basically how the story started. I started thinking about this scenario, about this family reenacting a ritual at the weekend, and that’s basically where that piece of work came from.

GB: Could you talk a little bit about the use of costume this piece? For example, were they made by you or did you collaborate with a designer? And how much did the costume help to form the work?

IA-R: I think Hoods and masks are the most interesting costumes because they’re the most accessible. You wear a hood or a mask if you’re committing a crime, or historically if you’re being executed. So I’m really interested in the hood or the mask being something that can very quickly change a scenario. So that’s why I’m only really interested in making those types of costumes in reality, because I feel that the type of work that I make is about infiltrating and disrupting a daily narrative. So it’s not so much about creating a totally fantastical scenario, and then the hood and the mask become really important because it’s something that people can quickly put on to totally change the vibe of what’s happening.

Within this piece I made the masks out of rabbit fur and terracotta. They are quite badly made! When I made them I didn’t know how to use fur. You’re meant to cut fur in a certain way but I cut it totally wrong and had rabbit fur all over everything I owned for two weeks…it was crazy, it was in my food - horrible! So there was a certain naivety because I wanted to look as though [the characters] had made them, or gathered them from stuff they could easily get.

GB: A lot of outfits in this piece appear to be everyday wear, compared to the masks which are overtly ‘costumes’, so did you costume the characters, or did they wear their own clothes and bring the history of these clothes with them?

IA-R: I’m quite interested in when the middle ground happens within the theatrical, when you don’t know if something has been planned, so I think it’s important in my work for things to appear like it’s “business as usual”. So within that film my family are all wearing clothes that they would usually wear. I think that was important because of the nature of the story, it was these normal people and they were kind of all acting themselves. None of them are actors, they are all my family. I think if they had put on a costume that would have made it really uncomfortable, so it was important that the ‘costume’ was just the mask.

GB: I suppose that most of the time you are making works where the person is playing themselves it is always more authentic for them to wear their own clothes. It depends if they would either feel uncomfortable, or you would want them to feel as though they are performing. It was hard to know if they are your family or if all of it’s staged. It has a fine line between being fictional and non-fictional. The characters do feel as though they are performing to you but I guess that’s because of the technique of putting yourself behind the camera.

IA-R: I think that it’s important that that line is always up for grabs, and that nothing is that clear or definitive. That’s something for me that works the best, and that’s why costume is such an accessible and great tool when it’s something that’s not used in the same sense as you might use it in a traditional, theatrical way. We’re not putting on costumes and doing a play, and I think it’s important those things aren’t obvious. I think that’s why it’s a disruption, because you don’t know, and I think all of that is really important. In this film some parts are really highly scripted, but I don’t think that you would know. Some parts we rehearsed a lot. It’s that thing of rehearsing something to make it look like it’s a fake documentary which is a really strange thing to have to do. Having to place the umming and ahhing, and going into the nuances of how you would stand “normally”. When you rehearse those everyday things you kind of mythologise them. You have all of these tiny moments, and when you’re making the film it becomes inflated. My favourite types of work are like that - when you feel like you don’t know what’s happening here. So I think that with the costume it’s like that. You don’t know if they’ve made it, you don’t know if this is their house, you don’t know if that’s their car. All of these things then become up for grabs, and I think that’s really important for it to become kind of accessible in a way because you can decide for yourself and there’s not an agenda.

GB: Yes, for me there were so many questions about the origins of the mask. Did you have any reference points with the design of the mask?

IA-R: At the time I was very much into thinking about old, English Pagan ritual and I was reading up about historical Pagan ceremonies, and so I was referencing the hood in that sense, and the rabbit skin, the skin of an animal, and how that could affect you. Thinking about tribalism and how the masks are like props to your behaviour. So you put a thing on and then you become something else. These were the things that I was referencing when I made them.

I made the masks before I wrote the film or the story, so I had them as dead things in my room. I think I do that quite a lot and that I am interested in props and masks having their pre-life and post-life, or maybe not ever coming alive. But maybe they also do and you activate them at the right time. So sometimes some of these things don’t necessarily align in the making process, which I find quite interesting. You can think “this is what I’m thinking about”, and “here is this thing” and put them together and make it come to life.

GB: I think that often when people are using costumes in their work it is something that they try to design at the end so it’s fascinating to know that these came first.

IA-R: I think that a lot of the time the costumes have their own personalities, I think that I have done that a lot in my work as well. Previously I made a bird costume and character, and I had no idea how it was ever going to fit into anything, but it was a personal thing and I couldn’t let go of it. Then suddenly you are writing something and you think it is perfect for this. You almost have to give it up. With those masks I kind of didn’t want to use them because I feel as though I had some ownership over them. But then you let them go and it rolls out of that. It’s funny, they are like children.

GB: I’m not sure any ways that you have exhibited the film before. You have this kind of material connection to the costumes, so would you consider that presented in an installational sense you may have the masks there? Do you consider that they could live outside of the film?

IA-R: So when I exhibited this piece twice I put the masks in the space. One time they were vacuum sealed as if someone had tried to store them, and the other time they were just on the floor. I’m not super comfortable with putting costumes on the wall as if they are fetishised, or weird objects to be put behind glass. I’m interested in things being inviting to touch, and as though someone has just had it on and thrown it off. That’s the most interesting part to me, I don’t want it to be like a museum.

GB: So it’s not so much about the objecthood of them, or glorifying them as some specially made thing, it’s about the potential for them to be activated.

IA-R: Exactly, it’s just about them being a skin. And I think that also carries on in the way that I make film. I’m really interested in someone called Laura Marks, she wrote a really beautiful book called ‘The Skin of the Film’, and she talks about leaving holes in narratives, and leaving holes in visual language in order to separate yourself from certain traits that might be particularly considered with what a Westernised version of filmmaking can be. So I like to bring that out as well. You leave holes in the narrative, and you leave holes in what could have happened, so you leave masks on the floor and that kind of discarding of costume is quite important because they are often held up on this weird pedestal. It’s kind of cool to just throw them on the floor!

GB: Yes, totally. I always think it’s quite strange when you get exhibitions with dressed mannequins and that somehow makes the costumes more dead. By trying to inhabit them with this fake mannequin body it makes it so much more dead than if it was just on the floor because then you remember that a person has just worn it. It’s rare that you see costume like that. I reminds me of a show by Ed Atkins called ‘Olde Food’ at Cabinet Gallery that used some stock from an opera costume house. It had films around the outside of the gallery space of digitised, animated characters and in the middle there were rows of unanimated, hanging costumes. I haven’t seen that before in an exhibition where costumes were presented in a way that was about activating them - they were waiting to be used.

IA-R: Yes it’s adds a kind of suspense. I think that sometimes costume has a bit of stigma, and isn’t a very “cool” thing. It’s a bit kitsch, or you’re relying on it too much. I feel like that’s a very unhelpful way to view it because it’s actually a very accessible way to work with people that can’t act. Just on a very practical level, because I work with a lot of young people, my family and people who have never been in front of a camera before, when you give them something physical to put on it becomes more accessible to everyone - to the viewer and the person in the film. So I think costume shouldn’t be viewed as this kitsch thing, it’s a really useful tool for making and to include everyone in the making process.

GB: Yes, the ability for people to transform themselves when they are in a costume is amazing. And costumes is seen a bit like the cheap sister to the fashion world, there is a bit of a funny attitude towards that I think.

IA-R: It’s strange because we all wear costume everyday. Someone is engaged with costume in some way or another regardless of if they want to admit it or not.

GB: For you, what is the difference between costume and clothing - when is someone "in costume" as opposed to simply wearing an outfit?

IA-R: I don’t think there is a line. I don’t think it’s useful to think of costume as though it can only be a certain thing, I think that limits it. I think that we are all wearing costume all the time, we all have signifiers of our personalities or identities - where we’re from, our class, our race - and we show those signifiers through what we wear. I think that to think of costume as only something that is separate to that is strange. I think the most interesting moments are when those lines are blurred you don’t know what you’re looking at.

GB: I feel like you have already touched on this, but is there anything else you would like to add about the role that costume plays within the rest of your practice?

IA-R: For me it’s a really good way to start thinking about actually filming. Sometimes as a filmmaker you become so introverted, and on a screen, and it’s difficult to ever know how you’re ever going to make this thing. I think that the moment you start making a physical thing, or collecting together physical things, you start think about how that may work. When you are working with people it’s really important to start to think about that.

I think that the way I work is quite participatory, I do a lot of workshops, I make a lot of stuff with kids in general, and I think lots of my ideas have developed the most when I’ve made them with other people. When you start making a mask with another person and they suggest you could do “this, this and this”, it becomes something else and I think that’s really important to the work to make it feel human and there’s a bit of tender touch there. It’s just a tool basically in order to get somewhere else, and I couldn’t see an alternative to this.

I keep saying the word “accessibility” but I’m really concerned with making work that’s able to be entertaining as well as interesting, and I think that’s something else that’s also seen as a negative thing somehow. I think costume is an entertaining thing and we all have some kind of akin to it. As kids we make masks, we play, we dress up, and that’s a very human and natural thing. For me costume allows you to think about quite big concepts and quite complicated references historically and philosophically, in a way that is accessible, meaningful and tangible. I think it’s important that the costumes all look handmade, and people go away thinking that I could do that, or what would it feel like to be in that.

GB: I guess that it’s what that people can imagine transporting themselves into a character.

IA-R: Exactly, and I think there is such a power in embedding that in daily life. I think there is a huge joy in the act of resistance. We all have things about ourselves, or things about the way we identify that are difficult, so if you’re able to alleviate all that stuff very, very quickly and very simply just by putting on something else, then that’s where there’s a lot of strength.

GB: I guess in this film that the masks could be seen as a sign of resistance. You talk about it being a way of escaping their middle-class life.

IA-R: Yes, definitely. I guess in my other work I’m more concerned about this from a South American perspective and from the other side of my identity. But in this work I’m interested in it from a more English perspective and thinking about class systems in England and how costume and ritual could work here, somewhere where they aren’t so embedded. In South America it is such an embedded thing. Magic and mysticism, and all of this stuff, is super embedded into daily life. I like to make the comparisons between that and here - how those could work and if they could work. It’s very interesting for me to see my mum and the people in this film acting out this thing because they are so separate from that, yet they are still connected through me and my sister.

GB: Is this a totally fabricated scenario, or do they ever engage in these strange, cult-like activities?

IA-R: Not really. My Grandad worked for the tax office for 55 years! I think that my mum is the only one of the group who is more into spiritualism or ritual because of her upbringing. I remember her forcing us to do really weird things when we were younger like blessing stuff, and I remember finding it wildly embarrassing. She is probably the closest one to it, but she is nothing like her character who is angry and feminist. She was a very hardworking single mum and it’s funny to see her in those moments when she lets out that she believes in those things, she normally always keeps it like a little secret thing that no-one else knows, and I think that’s really beautiful.

GB: It seems as though your costumes appear as a way of creating a sense of absurdness because they are so opposite to the naturalistic essence of the film. Is that how you would see the way that costumes operate in your work?

IA-R: One thing that carries through all of my work is the role of the jester, the trickster, the Loki. I think that every single culture in the world has its version of a trickster in whatever form that might take. So in most of my films there is a character that will appear in costume and represent that.

In a court the jester would be given the permission to deconstruct the power structure that everyone’s living under in a way that’s funny, kind of entertaining, kind of on the line, but ultimately the trickster gets killed. The jester in every single court would get killed by the king because ultimately there would be one point where you go over the line. It’s almost your sentence - provide this humour but you will die. I think that’s what my costumed characters do in almost every scenario, and that is absurd. But that is also how you are able to dismantle power structures by finding the fact that they are absurd, celebrating that and putting it to the centre. Then you can start to have something really interesting happen that doesn’t necessarily rely on those structures being in place.

GB: That’s a great way to summarise it because it’s not just about the humorous aspect of it or to create a surreal scenario.

IA-R: That’s why in this film I’m also interested in the unreliable narrator. So you’re presented information by me or someone else in the film, but something’s off. I think that’s how you differentiate between something going totally sci-fi or something being rooted in reality. You have a voice that’s not telling you “this is what we’re doing” in some crazy, make-believe scenario. It’s telling you there are aspects of that but “I don’t know if I believe them, I don’t know if they’re true, and I don’t know if I want to be here, and maybe I just want to go home”. I think it’s important to have that grounding.

GB: I was going to ask you to speak more about your decision to be the unseen but heard narrator. In the film your mum says your name, so the viewer is meant to know that the filmmaker is you. Do you consider yourself a character or just the filmmaker?

IA-R: I wrote it as if it was my family I was going home to, and I knew that they had done this thing, and I needed to find out more, and the only way I could do that was to make a film about it. So yeah I was in it definitely. That’s important because then it becomes this weird situation the viewer is questioning "why are you speaking?”, “why are they using your real name?”,  “why’s that your real mum but everything else is highly scripted?”.

In some way or another I’m always in every film I make. Either as a voice saying “this isn’t good”, or trying to reenact something that’s failing. In the film I am a passive bystander and I’m not super sure about my position here. I think that’s important for the viewer because that’s how you get the best connection and they think “maybe I could be in this too”. Without that it becomes a reenactment and it’s really hard to place yourself as the viewer.

GB: We as the viewer become you in the film, which is confusing. And the way that they communicate with you saying things like “we didn’t think that you’d be here”, you definitely feel like you’ve infiltrated a situation.

IA-R: To be the voyeur is always a better position. This is a bad example, but I really like ‘Trailer Park Boys’, which is a really shit TV show, but in this the documentary makers are part of it and there are bits where the sound guy will trip over. And then as the viewer you are aware that someone else is filming this, and you’re being told to watch. You’re told you don’t need to follow the agenda but you can watch and see what happens. I think there is something more transparent about that even though it’s ultimately quite deceptive.

GB: It also then becomes a film about filmmaking.

IA-R: Yeah exactly, it’s a film that’s about reenacting something that happened on a film, and the layers of that can get quite convoluted. You get a bit lost and that is quite interesting too.

GB: And the last thing I wanted to ask you was how important authenticity is to you in your work? This could be from a costume perspective, for example the characters wearing their own clothing. Or able how much you like to reveal of yourself in your work.

IA-R: I think that authenticity is such a loaded and strange thing. My response to this question would be that I think everything I do in my work is about deception, I think it’s about the opposite of authenticity. I don’t actually want to be authentic within what I make. I don’t want to try and present anything I do as authentic because I don’t think that’s a representation of our lived experience. I think we’re all deceptive beings. With the costume making I could make things that teeter on the edge of whether they wear that in normal life or not, whether they have chosen to do that or not. But I think there’s something more interesting about shoving it all together and hoping for the best. I don’t know if any of it is authentic or not.

GB: I think a lot of people get very hung-up on the idea of authenticity and what that means. Especially in a costume context, for example those masks in your film would have to be an exact replica of some other kind of Pagan mask. Sometimes it’s an interesting reference point, but other times it doesn’t matter and the audience doesn’t know. It can be quite elitist the idea of authenticity, and sometimes you can’t afford to make things that are “authentic”. I guess authenticity to one person is different to another, and sometimes it’s not the be all and end all of an artwork to be authentic.

IA-R: Yeah, because I don’t know what that means! There is this privilege attached to authenticity, and you are somehow only authentic if you are doing this specific thing, making this specific brushstroke, or referencing this philosopher who is very hard to understand. It becomes like a game, a bingo of who can be the most real and it’s exhausting. I think that costume serves its purpose when you can quickly shove everything together, and make something that looks like the thing in your brain and that helps you to articulate it better. I don’t think everything needs to be conceptually convoluted. Lots of the time I watch videos, especially in galleries, where everything is insinuated but nothing is shown, and all I want them to do is show me. I want something physical, I want a visual thing, and that is something that is sometimes a little bit lost. We’re working in a visual language, so it’s okay to say “I’m going to make something visual”. It’s gets it across and then hopefully kids as well as adults can understand it, or be freaked out by it, but they get why they’re being freaked out. So I guess that’s authentic!