Lea Collet & Marios Stamatis
18th Feb - 3rd March 2020
'Apex Body', 2019. Video, 09:57.
Apex Body is a video performance conceived for Swamp Protocol commissioned by Most Dismal Swamp, a video compression made by 18 artists. The performance presents a collective of friends — the Millennials — isolated in a post-apocalyptic setting, taking part in a digital ritual. In between rugby movements, erotic flower eating and collective hugging, the performers dance a trance-like ceremonial togetherness. They wear a mix of hunting clothes collection and digital sportswear. On their face, glitter make up overlap with silver tears. The editing of the video is convulsive, involving layering of effects and affect. What matters now is the connection, the difficult and complex relationship of the individual to technological means, allowing new modes of joint affective living.
Performer: Sara Borga, Natalia Janula, Harry Bix, Marios Stamatis & Lea Collet
Curated by: Most Dismal Swamp
Camera operator : Ollie Furlong
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 piece? It could be good to speak briefly about Swamp Protocol, the exhibition that the work was conceived for.
Lea Collet: I’m Lea, and this is Marios, and we’ve been working together for the last five years across moving image, installation and performance. Our current research focusses on digital interaction and how technology is shaping the way that we interact with each other. We started to focus on romantic relationships and now we are moving our practice towards how groups work together through technology. And for this video, ‘Apex Body’, we invited three other friends of ours to work with us, so it’s the five of us set in a post-apocalyptic setting. It’s hard to define where they are and how they’ve come here, and what has brought them to this space. They are acted out some kind of (as we call them) digital rituals where the only way that they can communicate is through their phones. And then they are also interacting with one another by doing some touching movements and some rugby movements that look like they are embracing each other, but at the same time they are fighting. They are feeding flowers to each other as if this is the last thing they could eat, and somehow try to rebuild a community. We called each other the ‘army of love’ - so that was a kind of small storyline for all of us when we were doing the performance for the camera.
This work was a specific commission from Most Dismal Swamp (Dane Sutherland) who created a project called Swamp Protocol which is a correlation of eighteen artists who work kind of together - he commissioned different artists to get involved in the project in different ways. So you have writers, musicians, sculptures, installations, and everything was shot and edited into a film, so as a viewer the only way that you can experience the work is through a moving image work that exists online. It was exhibited in Arebyte gallery in March 2019 and another part was also a VR experiment that was displayed at Gossamer Fog in 2019 as well. The work has taken many different chapters and is still evolving. We did a performance for the camera for this, and what we have done [for The New Flesh] with ‘Apex Body’ is take our performance and make a new edit out of it.
Marios Stamatis: What you see in this edit is the protagonist and this group of friends - The Millennials - take part in this digital ritual, as Lea mentioned. This ritual involves flower eating, hugging, touching and feeling each other, as well as trance-like dancing and a lot of body movement…as well as some more mellow moments. The flowers themselves, alongside all of these gestural elements, they all together become the vehicle, or the catalyst if you like, for some sort of new affective living to form and happen. These characters allow themselves to experience this through their bodies.
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 content of the work?
LC: The costumes for ‘Apex Body’ are a mix of found costumes and garments that we bought from the sports shop Decathlon, and they are from the hunting collection. These are clothes that are being used by hunters to hide from animals and birds…so that’s the top. The bottom is mainly fitness and sports clothes without any brand; we were looking at specific trends for this project, for example Travis Scott was one person who had been wearing a lot of the hunting collection. Then there was a huge designer - I can’t even remember the name of the designer who did it - but they kind of copied this hunting idea. Our idea was to create an army-like community of people that wear the same thing, and that almost look hyperreal. We are really interested in playing with that real physical versus virtual, and having another world that we don’t really know where it sits - almost quite Utopic or apocalyptic. Everyone has gelled hair and [make-up] tears coming from their eyes so that everyone has the same characteristics, almost like robots, and almost as if they are coming from somewhere else. Or they are somehow born from a nuclear disaster or something like that.
MS: In order to portray this collective body or unit, as Lea mentioned ‘the army of love’, and in order to emphasise their collective nature and togetherness, we chose to dress them in uniform. So in this way we allow to the characters the space of self-expression and self-affirmation in which the desire of the self is expressed. However, it is experienced or lived through moments and acts of togetherness - when they become a collective body or a single unit all together.
GB: What role does costume play in the rest of your practice?
LC: Costume plays a lot in our performances. We usually have some kind of alter ego for ourselves and this happens when we put the costume on. We have looked at a mix of different things. Initially we wanted to create alter egos that are kind of gender-neutral, or they don’t have specific gender, and then as we were going along and making work about romantic relationships we realised that we should play more on that. So then we decided to stretch that idea of neutrality. We always have gelled hair, tears from our eyes, glitter and some kind of fitness clothes, but that are mixed with something - for example in our previous work it was mixed with Victorian patterns, and in this project it was mixed with leaves and flowers. There is always a kind of natural element to those hyper-virtual bodies. The use of alter ego in a way is to create this confusion of what’s real and what’s not. And even within the script of our performances and our work it’s very much to do with: where are we? In which world are we playing, are we in a physical, real world, or in a virtual game or something like that? Or work also references pop culture, so we could also be on a reality TV show. It has a non-place in a way, and the costumes really help to create this non-place, or to create this confusion.
MS: With our costumes and make-up we want to create some sort of friction between our facial expressions, our make-up and costumes, our thoughts and emotions, our lyrics. For example, you might see us with our faces completely expressionless (holding a resting face and completely hiding emotion) whilst our eyes are crying rivers of silver tears and glitter. Our bodies are holding tight to each other - hugging each other, or fighting maybe. At the same time, we recite pop song lyrics, bringing all these layers in context, if you like. We’re almost playing with what’s real emotion, almost like crying on the outside and laughing on the inside type of moment.
GB: The ‘glitter tears’ are quite iconic in your work - could you elaborate on them?
LC: So the glitter tears came from our reference to pop culture, and we were looking at ‘Pills and Potions’ by Nicki Minaj, which is a video clip where she actually cries some virtual, glittery tears. And Billie Eilish did something very similar in another video. We were really inspired by that and of course romantic relationships, and what it means to be in a dual relationship in this kind of world. How, for example, dating apps affect each other and how they portray people and allow you to meet online. Usually we create scripts for ourselves that are not being told [to the viewer] but they are in the back of our heads. Usually it’s a sad love story and the idea is to have the tears there as a cry for this sad love story. At the same time, it is quite humorous and funny, if you want it to be funny. Or it could be really sad because it’s glitter coming out of eyes! But again it is to play with that idea of the virtual and how much of this is real.
MS: Yet again it is the question of what happens when you switch your phone off in the context of self-representation and self-affirmation, or duplicity of the physical and virtual. I guess if there is one thing that you can take away after you have switched off your phone is that these hook-up apps don’t virtualise reality but rather it’s reality that virtualises itself again and again.
GB: You describe 'The Millennials', the characters in the work, as performing digital rituals and wearing digital sportswear. You have spoken a lot about creating a confusion between physical and virtual for the viewer. As the makers of this world, would you say that you then consider The Millennials to exist in a virtual space rather than a physical one?
LC: The idea for ‘Apex Body’ was very much to create a non-space, that is neither real and neither virtual. A lot of our quest in our work is based on Roland Barthes and this idea of ‘love at first sight’, and what it means. What does the act of falling in love mean? Either within a romantic relationship or within a group setting. This idea of falling in love and love at first sight, when bringing technology into it, [makes you question] if this place is still a real place, or this sight is still a real sight (sight in both ways - sight as a view, and site as a place) and so again it’s creating a non-place. We usually call it a soft place in a way that sits between physical real, and virtual. That’s quite interesting especially when we work with live performance, as our physical bodies are there but then we start to incorporate the use of costumes and we use our phones a lot, and we have really, really scripted dialogues that almost make us quite robotic or surreal. And previously we have also scanned ourselves and made a 3D render of ourselves, so we almost insert ourselves in the virtual world. Or the opposite, the virtual world gets inserted into the physical real world.
MS: We also see this liminal space between virtual and physical as a place where potential happens or takes place. By potential we mean all possible combinations. The place where the phenomenologically opposites co-exist and connect, or merge perhaps. What cannot be experienced can perhaps be felt in this place.
GB: Could you talk about how you use your bodies within your practice, and the importance of including yourselves within your videos and performances?
LC: We started to collaborate with people initially, so we’ve worked a lot with dancers and actors on really specific projects. As we were working with them we realised that the fact of having our own physical bodies there was actually the work itself. Especially going towards speaking about relationships and conflict, or love relationships. We thought that the idea was for us to physically be present and to endure those kind of feelings, because it’s so based on emotions and feelings that it felt like we needed to do that.
It’s interesting because a lot of people do ask us when we finish performing if it’s our real life or if everything is real. And that’s where the answer becomes quite blurry because there is no answer to it. It’s very much about recycling our own bodies so we use ourselves in a specific way for a certain performance and we will use ourselves in another way for another performance. So the body is constantly changing and constantly evolving. We have a lot of moments where it looks like we are embracing each other, but also we could be fighting. The same with the lifting, it looks as though we are leaning against each other but at the same time we could be pulling each other apart. And it’s very physical so it felt like the only way we could do that is for us to perform. I think the idea of the body being present is very important in the work. So somehow, even if it’s not a live performance but it’s a recorded one, the body is still present, or there is always a suggestion of our bodies somewhere in the work.
GB: Lastly, for you, what is the difference between costume and clothing - when is someone "in costume" as opposed to simply wearing an outfit?
LC: It’s interesting because ‘costume’ in French means ‘a suit’ actually, so there is a bit of blurriness here because in French a costume is actually a piece of clothing. I guess I don’t see much of a difference, I think it’s maybe the way the clothes are performed, so the way that the individual will perform those clothes. It doesn’t have so much to do with the form itself of the clothes, and maybe the costumes become more performative in a lot of different ways. Maybe one day you can open your wardrobe and decide ‘OK, today it’s going to be a costume and not clothes because I’m going to put this performance on’. I really strongly believe in that actually, in the performance of the everyday and how you portray yourself towards others depending on what context. So you could go to a job interview and decide to be a totally different person, and maybe that’s where you put a costume on rather than clothes. Maybe today I’m wearing a costume rather than clothing even though this is my everyday outfit. Yeah, I think it’s this idea of performativity and how the garment can perform for the individual. I was going to say something about creating an alter ego for yourself, and maybe that’s where you have difference between clothes and costume. Maybe the alter ego wears the costume versus the clothes, and again you can be whoever you want for that costume.
MS: Again, this question brings us back to the discussion about the actual and the virtual, or lived experience versus mediation in the context of self-representation, self-affirmation through the digital. I think, as Lea mentioned the garment is the vehicle that you - either as an individual or as a collective body - take in whichever direction you want to. And this way you create this space of self-expression and you allow the desire to be expressed.