Rebekah Bide

8th May -  22nd May 2020

Installation shots of Plans for Better Living

Plans for Better Living, 2018. Video and sculpture installation.

The Plans for Better Living films are duplicated videos that deviate and return to one another, remaining simultaneously in sync. They are presented as part of the Plans for Better Living installation on two separate screens facing one another, each one's opposing image available in glimpses through situated mirrors that can be seen whilst sitting on the raised carpeted seating and platform, obscured through replicas of water and wheat, surrounded by vertical curtains. A water-cooler is provided for refreshments and conversation by the exit.

The films in their full version last 14 minutes, 44 seconds.

Performers: Henry Osman, Soha Salem, Anna Sharon, Lowena Hearn, Jago Rackham, Uzma Chowdhury.
Assisted by Emma Green and Meitao Qu.

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 piece?

Rebekah Bide: So my work is called Plans for Better Living and it is a dual screen video installation that I created as an immersive experience, to both be a part of the experience of ‘Plans for Better Living’ and also to watch an almost instructional film to learn how to live better. I guess what I was interested in with this film was inauthenticity within film, and how this sometimes allows people to feel more truth than in reality. It sort of presents reality in a way that is more true - the truth in fiction.

I love genre films that work with associating very strict character roles with purpose, and how that works in character development. And so I was bumbling around all of these ideas at the time, and still now, I am interested in what people do to escape the crisis of modern life, or to have a dreamscape, or an alternative way of living I suppose. I think a lot of the ways that I was looking at things was through visual imagery, and how that allows you to view things in a certain way. Seeing an image and going back to the real thing, shapes the way that you think about that thing - to put it not very eloquently!

So that was what I was looking at when I created the film, and I wanted to be able to go through this procession of ideas, and archetypes of film in a way that enabled escapism and relief from everyday life. And I suppose the most generic thing I could think of, the most horrible thing that I could think, facing up to career woman life, was working the most boring job in an office or being castrated creatively in a sense in that way! I created this office ‘man’, because I think modern ideas of work are very modelled on patriarchal ideas of what is work, and what is play, and I wanted to play with that image. So my man, my friend Henry, went on a journey to find a plan for better living.

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?

RB: I suppose the initial plans for Plans for Better Living came from an engagement with historical cartoons and prints. I was looking at this print of ‘Fashions of the Day’ from the 1800-1900s, and this man was falling into a woman’s oversized bonnet. It was making fun of the costumery of people’s everyday garments. I really liked that idea because it looked like he was being sucked into some sort of womb-like area, so it gave me the idea of creating headpieces that actually would function as tools and objects to be able to alter people’s perceptions. And they could almost exchange perceptions in a way that would then dictate how the film itself would come together, and what sort of narrative that would form.

Looking at the cartoons, I’m very interested in material translation, and immediate associations that come to mind with seeing how something is done in one form, and then rendering it physically in another. So I worked with very straight, structured wood to create these bonnets because they were done in such a printed, strict way and that was hard because learning to work with what was almost willow weaving was a journey, and it took a very long time. But then I wanted to go back to the cartoon and what kind of time period it was from when everything was very costumed, even our associations of it today are very rooted in some kind of romanticism and costumery. I was looking at working with costumes that already has an association with a certain time period and certain roles, so I worked with the National Theatre company to put together costumes for certain very archetypal roles within the film.

GB: And how much did the costume help to form the content of the work? Because for some people the costume comes first - was that the case for you?

RB: I think when I first started working with film it was mainly because I wanted to be able to tell a sort of story of what was happening with the garments. Nothing for me is ever a still image, it is always flowing and moving, and things are made to be interacted with and to be touched in a very visceral way. So the object itself is moving with perspective. And the almost baroque construction of such items, they informed how I worked with structuring things in a very fictional way, but I took it seriously so that you could see the kind of ideas that were present beneath it. But in a very overt way so that it turns quite humorous. I never meant it to be like that, but it turned out like that because I didn’t realise that inauthenticity itself, even earnestness, can be incredibly funny. And that’s what I think happened with it all. I started to take myself too seriously, but then I can’t actually do that and so the film sort of turned around on me.

GB: It certainly has a sense of humour to it!

RB: Also my friends are just very funny people, and I love collaborating with people like that because it informs the work in ways that I wouldn’t be able to do on my own. And the costumes, in terms of the structure of them and the mirrors, we had a couple of workshops practising with them beforehand and I was interested to see exactly how it made people interact with each other and what sort of relationship dynamics and social dynamics that brought about. That’s what I am more interested in with costumes, it’s about how they highlight the social constructions that are present in everyday life or in certain roles, certain places that you aren’t necessarily aware of. Just a slight alteration of one thing, of size or of material suddenly makes you aware of what’s actually happening, and what is dictating what you feel about something. Perception really.

GB: Speaking of mirrors…the use of mirrors in this work is found in both the costumes and in the installation reflecting the opposite screens. Are mirrors a form of symbolism in your work and like a window, or do you see them as a device to achieve something else?

RB: So the mirrors were a way of addressing concepts within materials, the perception of yourself, your perception of other people. Very Lacanian psychoanalysis mirror-stage thinking of the stage where we learn to identify ourselves as objects, and the world around us as objects; that not only can you see yourself as an individual but also as an object present within society. And be able to play with that, and manipulate that, and be aware of other things in a way that, I suppose not being given another dimension might be able to do for you.

And so that’s what I was interested in with mirrors: the being able to see around corners, and see behind you. What if you were shown a reflection of yourself and suddenly it’s someone else’s reflection or their perspective? So that’s why I worked with costumes, it was to be able to create that experience. Within the installation I wanted to build on that experience by just being able to flip the screens around so that you were aware that there were multiple temporalities taking place in one space.

GB: There seems to be very disparate elements of the pastoral against the office environment that you have merged together in this piece. Could you talk about the decision behind that? Do you see the pastoral as utopia?

RB: When I first heard this question it did make me think…I don’t necessarily think of the pastoral as the ideal, or a dreamscape, but what I am interested in is the idea of the idea of it being some sort of utopian image. The scenes themselves in the pastoral scene, they’re all very constructed and they’re all very artificial, and I think that reenactments of a certain time period are always trying to achieve some sort of idyllic existence or sort of defined meaning and certain way of living that they can’t find in their everyday lives…or some sort of escapism. It’s all incredibly constructed, but for some people that type of living brings out more realness, or more authenticity than their daily lives. And they’re able to actually live what they feel is their existence there. So that was what I was more interested in, it was those sort of period dramas, and the romantic ideal of expression and letting oneself go in nature. And that romantic sort of idyll. So that’s what I was interested in with that.

I suppose the disparate elements, it was because it was all about the way film is constructed and the way that artificialities blend together. And it’s all sort of saying the same sort of thing but just with a different sort of flavouring. And what sort of meaning those different constructs bring about when they’re seen in the film, and how that refreshes your own view of a certain identity in everyday life, in your real life.

GB: You grew up in Perth, Australia didn’t you? Was it quite rural?

RB: I had a very good childhood, and I was very lucky, but it’s a very artificial existence living in Australia because you’re there in such a postcolonial hellscape really. If you’re a white, privileged person, growing up as a kid you don’t realise it, and then all of a sudden you realise is this is incredibly problematic. And when you’re growing up everything is…well I grew up in suburbia and everything is incredibly not quite Stepford Wives, and not quite Palo Alto romantic ideal of suburbanism, but I think growing up in these countries where white civilisation has been constructed, there is some sort of collective identity that forms and if you deviate from that or go against it (I guess it’s the same everywhere) you are the “odd kid”, or the one that is threatening a sort of existence or a certain way of thinking that makes everyone else comfortable.

And I think everything felt very normal, and very safe, and very boring. And I think that is an incredibly lucky feeling to have. A lot of that changed as I grew up, but I think a lot of that definitely informed how I felt and I think you could only really feel extremities of certain feelings through fictions, and through reading, and through films, so I guess my initial education was escaping into those realities because my own wasn’t really facilitating that.

GB: It’s always interesting to see how someone’s background has influenced their work. And yours is quite a distinctive way of growing up in Australia.

RB: It’s strange because when I came [to the UK] it didn’t feel unfamiliar, but there are certain things like supermarkets have different names. We have ‘Coles’ and you have ‘Tesco’. One thing I struggled to find, Bunnings Warehouse, is an amazing tool shop, and you can buy so much there. There’s B&Q here but it’s not the same!

GB: Bunnings is an institution in Australia, isn’t it? Everyone goes on a Sunday.

RB: Bunnings is an institution, and it’s really good. When I was back there over the summer, all of my art materials come from hardware stores mainly, and I made the new work that I’m making completely out of materials from either the side of highways that are all over Perth because it’s such an urban sprawl. I use grass from the side of highways, and also PVC piping from Bunnings Warehouse.

It was easier to buy those kind of materials there because there isn’t a demand for art materials. I went to an art store there and tried to buy some linen for painting, and they didn’t sell linen because the cost of importing it there wasn’t worth the demand they had from consumers. It’s not as if they’re attacking creative people but it’s more like people don’t need that there, they’re still constructing some way of living that doesn’t call for that sort of creativity, it’s quite different. That’s why art education there felt odd because it was always about other places and other times. And everything felt very inauthentic so I wanted to go somewhere where I could experience something rather than just hear about it. Although I’m sure an education there would have been completely different, and I would have gained a lot of different things, I think I’ve been incredibly lucky.

GB: So to return to Plans for Better Living, I was interested in how you used the term ‘deviation’ to describe the different scenes or characters in the film - could you elaborate on that?

RB: To me deviation means when one thing changes to another, or when it offers a different perspective or a different scene. For lack of a better word, when it juxtaposes the other in a certain way, and how that visual imagery blends together to then create the centric image of the film. So I think the film is a lot about deviation, because in contemporary culture you don’t just see one image at a time, you see a million, and all of those images put together are what informs you of a certain thing, and that informed the way things were constructed within Plans for Better Living.

GB: I’m trying to recall what all of the specific deviations are. I wonder if you can tell us them one by one?

RB: The whole thing was filmed in my living room, I always love putting up sets and set backs and walking around them and realising there is a very real world present in another world. It was strange having it in the living room for a week because you would leave the kitchen and all of a sudden you were in a film set!

So it goes from the office scene, and then it deviates…I suppose what comes into the office scene is its own kind of infiltration of a different genre. The medical emergency drama with my beautiful friend playing a nurse. So that kind of infiltrates the scene, and it is further infiltrated by different generic characters from different films, like a cowgirl, a powerful character that gives the weapon of the film, the gun, the standoff, with the main character, but is then sort of deviated. Artificiality is run rampant with just having very bad special effects, for example, and the balloons and [colour] keying of the imagery in After Effects to create this strange sort of sci-fi infiltration in itself with the special effects.

So that’s what you see on one screen, and then on the other screen playing simultaneously would be the trapeze scene. I have a very talented friend who does the trapeze, and so we moved the entire set to their house where they have their trapeze. And it was about the carnival, and this sort of dangerous and seductive world of knife throwing and danger. A similar sort of thing happened there with my friend throwing knives, and then it returns back to the general office scene and the man is not really surprised by what has happened, but he is like “oh well”. It was fine but it didn’t make him feel any better; it was just a construct, and he was aware of that.

And so the nurse breaks through the fourth wall of the office scene through the blinds and takes the man through to a field. It’s an idyllic, otherworldly scene as I said before, it’s that construct of what people associate with films of being some sort of romanticised ideal of both social interaction, and manners, and taste. But then it is also horribly layered with so many other associations that aren’t even brought into it, so it’s completely fiction. So it’s just living in fiction rather than reality I suppose. And that’s its main connective factor.

GB: I guess this is more of a practical question, but how did you find the process of turning this installational film into a single channel work? Did you find that it added anything or presented any new challenges?

RB: I think what you realise when you make installation work is that a certain installation can only really happen at one certain time and place because then you have to go through all the very boring administrative and horribly organisational tasks of having to de-pack the installation, and find somewhere for it to live. The installation was massive, it was 4m x 4m, and incredibly heavy - everything was made in the wood workshop. It was heartbreaking but the installation had to be torn apart because there was nowhere for that to live except in a setting for this experience to take place.

So I think going through the process of turning the work into more of a single viewer, intimate, one-on-one interaction on a screen…beforehand in the installation you would be in a collective of people all viewing the work at the same time. You would be looking at the work simultaneously with them opposite you, and you are first positioned to interact with the person opposite you before you are even meant to be looking at the screen, because the screen is at an awkward position slightly above the head, and there are mirrors placed around that then reflect that. What you and the other person is seeing isn’t eye-to-eye, not exactly the same thing, but those things are happening simultaneously. And that gives a similar core principle in reality as the film does. And I think if you have an installation of that kind, in this film, you’re not going to achieve the same effect for the viewer. But what you can do is give them the ingredients, I suppose, and that is the film. Work that in a way that is able to achieve the same things, and have faith in the film that it will be enough to not give the full experience, but sort of a taste.

GB: Lastly, as I have been asking everyone during these interviews, for you, what is the difference between costume and clothing - when is someone "in costume" as opposed to simply wearing an outfit?

RB: Adorning oneself with any sort of clothing, or costumery, I think people are always quick to say that something is a costume and isn’t clothing, or something is clothing and not a costume. I think where the distinction lies it what people see as acceptable for a certain identity at any one given time. And if you deviate from that identity that you’ve associated yourself with, or is associated with you, then you are wearing some sort of costume because you are not playing the real version of yourself - you suddenly become a character. And what characters wear are costumes, they don’t wear clothing, they wear costumes. So, a real person wears clothing, a character wears a costume.

There’s a very distinct line between those two subjects, and I think it’s quite silly because of what we are to each other: we all play certain roles in each other’s lives, we are all different characters at certain points, and people we don’t know are characters in constructing our society and our belief systems before us, and how the past has informed what sort of privileges and what sort of problems we have with our own identity. We’re given this identity and all of a sudden that’s supposed to be the real version of who we are but we haven’t chosen that, so it’s a character, that wears a costume.

I basically just think that everything’s a costume really, and you may as well have fun with what you’re doing, and what you wear, and what you want to do, and that should be reflected in what you choose. And all your choices: you’re free to choose if you want to be this person, or another person, and I don’t think that really should be some sort of…Costumes are always quite laughable somehow, they aren’t serious, but I think they are incredibly serious, and incredibly trivial at the same time.