"It's a mirror like that."
Following the premiere of Holly Childs & Gediminas Žygus' new work 'Freefall' made with Elif Satanaya Özbay and Tomasz Skibicki; and prior to our screening of Alice dos Reis' 'Undercurrent' as part of our fortnightly theme Symbiosis for Survival, the three artists spoke privately on the difficulty of engaging with critical and conceptual frameworks during the pandemic. In light of this, their written conversation for VIRTUALLYREALITY points elsewhere towards the material specificities of what they are doing (also their emotions and feelings); understanding K-Pop mythology, travelling along the vertical axis from space to seabed, investigating the (plant) colonisation of the Azores and watching words turn into flesh.
'Freefall'. Music by Holly Childs & Gediminas Žygus. Voiced by Marijn Degenaar, Elif Satanaya Özbay, Mark Prendergast. © & ℗ Subtext / Multiverse LTD. 2021 (@subtext_recordings). Video by Tomasz Skibicki & Elif Satanaya Özbay. Performance: Elif Satanaya Özbay. Creative styling: Pim Sem Benjamin (@pimsembenjamin). Costumes: Emma Torsteinsrud (@mm_trstnsrd), Baby Reni (@baby._.reni) and stylist's own. Typography: Charlotte Rohde (@charlotte__rohde)
[Gediminas] I’m genuinely obsessed with and fascinated by K-pop, and I would say maybe it is one of the most significant energetic influences on the new album Holly and I are currently working on. But, I find that the music community I'm part of mostly dismisses K-pop as a kind of musically and culturally worthless Amazonified clone of western pop, and I’ve made it personal to confront that rejection as one of attempting to preserve the narrative of Western cultural superiority. I see how maybe the language and fan culture around Korean pop ends up being militant as its acceptance as part of the global cultural narrative is a geopolitical act: K-pop as soft power.
In light of that, Alice, I was intrigued to see your work “Stan Rehearsal - Ensaio para Plataforma de Lançamento” where you worked with four K-pop dancers from the island of São Miguel, Portugal, where they dance to tracks by K-pop groups BTS and Blackpink, on the imagined future day of the first rocket launched from neighbouring Santa Maria island, where a spaceport is currently planned. How did you end up working with these dancers? How did you make the decision to contrast the rocket launch with K-pop dancers?
[Alice] I arrived in the Azores, (an archipelago, situated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, an autonomous region of Portugal) for a residency in 2019, to do research for the film I’m now finishing, See You Later Space Island, like you’re finishing your new album. This film would unravel from the news of the plans for a spaceport to be built in Santa Maria, one of the smaller islands. One night, me and other residents went for a very late dinner by the shore, the moon shone bright over the ocean and everything was very still. As I approached the restaurant I started hearing K-pop tracks, BTS and Blackpink mixed with Brasilian Funk. It was the teens I later collaborated with in the video, having a late evening of choreographing to these bands. They were all huge K-pop fans, and some of them really wanted to move to Seoul, even though they’d never been to continental Portugal. That encounter, filled with geopolitical tension and joy, was what sparked the contrasted image of Stan Rehearsal, which I shot with them a year later.
On this note, I’m really into the fact that K-pop is one major influence in your upcoming album. On first listen to the demo/sketch of it, I recognized many of the same voices—do you consider them characters?—as the ones that permeate your first album Hydrangea: Elif, Marijn, Mark, your own… It was really nice to find them here again, like the continuation to a quest. Re-encountering those same familiar voices here reminded me of how in each new BTS track I immediately try to identify each of the member’s voices, in an obsessive (and probably militant) search for familiarity. As you (Gediminas) said in our Zoom, “there’s a mode of storytelling in Kpop, that is like a new type of mythology”. What I’m looking for is an extension to the BTS narrative, and I guess I inadvertently did the same with your demo. Am I wrong to feel it called for it? Because of your (Holly) work as a writer, some of which I recognized in Hydrangea—Iike Blue Carbon, Intertidal, a poem that was featured in the companion publication to my film Undercurrent—do you see these two albums as part of the same universe, and in exchange with your current writing work too?
Still from “Undercurrent/Subcorrente”, 2019. HD video, 15', colour, sound.
[Holly] Is the new album a continuation of the characters in Hydrangea? In some ways yes. While the voices on the Hydrangea album seem to float in a void space, under the sheets in a club-adjacent private space, in the new album the voices actually belong to specific characters: Mark plays the narrator and a 600-year-old tree. And Elif and Marijn play Belief and Knowledge, two creatures lost in a forest. Is it the same universe? I think so, but everyone has grown up a little bit and started differentiating themselves from the void, they’re outside now.
[Gediminas] I think that I am interested in playing with the idea of a franchise, but not using it as a marketing strategy and a way of commercially milking the success of a film, a book or an album but more as a form that holds the possibility to tell a story in a multitude of ways. Even though it didn’t become a thing, I remember Holly was attempting to write a series bible for Hydrangea. While this aspect was not influenced by K-Pop (and I don’t think that there actual explicit influences) I do really appreciate the way the songs are versioned in K-Pop, how one can experience a track, a story in multiple ways. I think that my favourite mythmakers in K-Pop are Loona, who have highly elaborate mythology centred around the moon; mythology that is impossible to grasp in its whole complexity, but that fans get to follow and engage with by following clues on social media, their videos, quirks in interviews, etc. It’s a very engaging game.
[Holly] It's interesting that you (Alice) recognised Elif’s voice and my voice in Hydrangea, but not Mark or Marijn’s. This might be to do with the way the voices are treated on the tracks, but also with how voices can change completely when they’re separated from the body that produced them. In that respect, I think about the voice in Amnesia Scanner × Jaakko Pallasvuo’s Angels Rig Hook (2015), and though I don't think the track is actually voiced by Jaakko, I still imagine it being voiced by Jaakko.
Still from “Holly Childs & Gediminas Žygus - Freefall” music video directed by Tomasz Skibicki & Elif Satanaya Özbay
[Gediminas] For me, the AS × Jaakko record sounded quite a lot like snaps of conversations in the Kreuzberg Berlin unspecified “expat accent” at the front door of the now-defunct Chesters club. Interesting how now it feels to me like the record is almost cringe zeitgeist 2015, but in 5 years it might regain value as a kind of social/ethnographic document of Berlin of that era.
[Holly] I love how they pronounce “Club Maté” as “Club Mate”. I don’t find the track cringe, and I frequently listen to it while driving around Adelaide.
[Alice] Is Club Mate the English term for that Berlin accent?
[Holly] Haha, it could be.
[Alice] When I went to Melbourne people called my accent “general European”.
[Holly] You can really only come up with a term like that when you’re on the other side of the planet, the lack of specificity is great.
[Gediminas] My accent at times has been read as American for some reason and I have been read as this white Brooklyn hipster and getting the appropriate levels of social hate for it. It is strange how English became pretty much my first language, I rarely use Lithuanian, even while living in Lithuania, and in my social circle in Vilnius, even when speaking Lithuanian, it means that 20% of the linguistic exchange is done in English. At times someone might just switch to English for a comfortable form of expression and forget to switch back to Lithuanian and turn an expression from a paragraph to a monologue...Or when someone who doesn’t speak Lithuanian is present, the ease and immediacy with which people switch to English, it almost feels like a relief to the group to have the social excuse to switch to speaking English. I guess it also can be an excuse to transgress local social norms and customs. Alice, you mentioned that you have had similar experiences in Portugal?
[Alice] Ye, pretty much the same with me, but it’s something I’m consciously trying to mend. With friends my age, we also tend to flesh out sentences with specific terms in English often in the middle of a conversation, specific adjectives like ‘cringe’ and ‘awkward’. And Twitter/meme talk too like ‘NOT something something’ or ‘literally no one’. and I found myself doing the same when I speak with my mom for instance. She doesn’t speak English, and would never say it, but I know she tends to find my tendency disconcerting, perhaps posh even? I don’t like that, and have been trying to be more attentive.
[Gediminas] Alice, I’m trying to figure out your general trajectory, like trying to figure out the algorithm of your work, looking at your portfolio and remembering what I know of your work and thinking why you would write a thesis on the aesthetics of cuteness, then make a film about a water creature that has the reputation of being the world’s cutest creature, then progress to making work thinking about water bodies and marine biotechnologies, now you are making a work set in the Azorean island of Santa Maria whereas I understand you engage with its new function as a stage for space exploration technological experimentation. I don’t mean this description to be a finite characterisation of your work, but more of an attempt at my own reading and trying to understand—I sense that there is always something in your work that is a bit comical and relating to the geopolitical... maybe you could elaborate a little bit on what you think drives you to work with the subject matter that you work with?
[Alice] I’m trying to find the core of my interests, the vertical axis between the depths of the ocean and outer space, and how islands (especially those where rockets launch from) are a sort of perfect encapsulation of that.
In general, I guess I’m led by obsessions, and I tend to dig what I’m naturally most drawn towards from each obsession and extrapolate from there.
Undercurrent was a learning curve, both materially and conceptually. It’s a short sci-fi film about a marine biologist who “ocean senses” through bioengineered krill, modified to accommodate micro cameras in their bodies instead of organs. She’s meant to “use” them to map out the deepest areas of the Ocean. I have a real nurture-hate relationship with that work, because it was a bit like learning to walk, or growing teeth. You gain experience, but the process kinda hurts too? Idk. The new film I’m making has actors and some dialogue, but it still maintains a certain feeling of Undercurrent, the feeling of strangeness and time passing, technology/nature and the body. Still trying to digest it now that it’s shaping up into something I really expected it to be, and simultaneously absolutely alien to my original intentions.
Still from “Undercurrent/Subcorrente”, 2019. HD video, 15', colour, sound.
[Gediminas] At this point, you have made a few films and could potentially be read as a filmmaker, but you were mentioning that you struggle with both the form of the traditional film and the process of working within the canonical professionalised structures of film production?
[Alice] I think narrative is what’s always attracted me to film formats, and ultimately towards something closer to traditional filmmaking, at least in regards to process. Portugal has a very long and thriving film tradition, and I came of age within that cinephile context. I guess that unconsciously paved my way into film. But then there’s that, I am an artist and studied visual art, and suddenly even though I’m surrounded by a team of brilliant film people within a traditional film production environment and think I’m doing the most linear thing ever, I end up realising I’m really not. With this new film, I thought I was creating a traditional fiction film but it didn’t turn out that way at all, so I’m trying to figure out what would be a good compromise with which to work in the future. Did you ever feel something similar?
[Holly] I had a similar thing with my book No Limit, I thought I was writing a very standard novel, nothing strange, but people treated me like I’d come from outer space because of the content in it, or how they perceived the work to deviate from their expectations of what a work of fiction should be. My publisher pondered what planet I was from on stage at an industry event.
[Alice] It’s a mirror like that.
[Holly] I wanted to mention the film All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001). I thought of it when I saw your Azores works, based on an island archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, as Japan is an island archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. There’s something about the Okinawa scenes in All About Lily Chou-Chou, where things really start to go downhill, but the shift is taking place in this totally serene, hyper coloured tropical island. I also love Yuichi listening to a Lily Chou-Chou CD on a Discman in the field that turns from bright green to bright yellow as the seasons change; the loud clacking of the analogue keyboards in the Lilyholic message board; and that the movie itself started as an internet novel on its own real-world Lilyholic website.
But those Okinawa scenes, Okinawa being the southernmost most tropical part of Japan, is the only part of the film filmed by the cast, using handheld cameras, so it has a different feel and colour palette. I wanted to mention it, since I know Alice that you said that this was one of your favourite films. I want to know more about why you like the film, and if this film connects with your work in some way?
[Alice] I’m very happy you brought up All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001). It is one of my favorite films that only the 2000s could’ve produced. Your connection is so on point, that particular Okinawa sequence really influenced this film I’m working on. I haven’t watched the film in a long time, but there’s a particular honest release to that sequence, a holiday bought off stolen money. It comes at a crucial point in the film, it humanizes those kids, when their bullying and violence towards the main character would almost make you fully detach. It almost feels like that sequence was added after, shot on a post-production whim, to add a much-needed breath to the film. But I’m sure it was premeditated. That aspect of methodical experimentation is one of the things I love and respect the most about that phase of Shinji Iwai. I’m not sure why I like that film so much, but I think it’s probably because it’s a confluence of many things I love: pop music, wide-angle lenses, teen drama, and text on screen. How you related Okinawa and the Azores brought to mind the hydrangea, a plant/flower which was introduced by Portuguese settlers to the Azores around the 19th century. They’d brought the species from Japan exactly. The Azores were made into a sort of open-air lab by settlers for experiments with plant species brought from the colonies that would not survive in continental Europe. The hydrangea did so well in the wet climate of the islands that it came to be considered invasive, as well as its trademark. I was wondering, what attracted you to hydrangeas?
Still from “Holly Childs & Gediminas Žygus - Freefall” music video directed by Tomasz Skibicki & Elif Satanaya Özbay
[Holly] Hydrangea was the name of the “media agnostic” project Gediminas and I were developing before we chose it as the name of our first album. We were attracted to the binary nature of hydrangeas, that their colours are expressed differently depending on the acidity level of the earth they’re grown in: if the soil is acidic they’ll be blue, and if it's basic they’ll be pink. We also liked the name, “hydrangea” which means water vessel in Latin, as we were looking for a container for big feelings. We also wanted a name that’s meaning could change over time, a name that could be what we were doing. Going back to the beginning of the conversation, which K-pop groups do you stan?
[Gediminas] Chung Ha, Blackpink, Loona, lately Itzy, previously G-Dragon...
[Alice] I was previously a girl group type of girl, but over the pandemic I got into BTS, all their personalities, where they were born, their real names, their fan cams. I love all members of BTS, but RM is my bias because of his geniusness, clumsiness and sexyness. He’s a Virgo.
In a way, fandom is a trail to get to the music. If I hadn’t gone through the fandom process my engagement would have been a different quality.
[Holly] It’s not a K-pop thing, but I am a fan of Lelush, a Russian importer and translator who got stuck on Chuang 2021, a Chinese reality TV competition to create an idol band. Lelush was initially employed on the show to teach Mandarin to two competitors, but the show didn’t have enough competitors, so Lelush was asked to join the competition. Since he wasn’t trained in singing or dancing, he assumed he would get voted off quickly, but he was far more successful than he expected, and made it to the final episode, while asking fans not to vote for him, saying things like: “According to the show’s rules, I won today. But to me personally, I failed again.” There was a battle within Lelush’s fans, some of whom wanted to respect his wishes to not be successful on the show so that he could leave, and others who responded strongly to his apathetic attitude, which was in stark contrast to the high energy success-focussed performances of most of the other competitors. “F” was the lowest ranking on the show, and Lelush said “F means Freedom”. He was finally voted off on the final episode of the series, only just missing out on being contractually obligated to be in an idol group. Since then he’s been doing commercials for loads of different corporations. On his Instagram, for Lelush now “F means Fendi”, lol.
[Gediminas] Over the year of pandemic isolation, I got much more into Blackpink and I think the reason for that being just the quantity of content they put out. I think partly to do with that is that musical language builds in relation to the audience through repeated (and gradual) exposure; one might need to listen to a track 15 times to create a sense of having heard it in its entirety, or just to start to even learn and appreciate the artist’s language. Whereas with films the sense of having “completed an experience” may develop much faster. I found some films are almost unbearable when watching more than once because they were not built to be seen more than once. It is interesting to me as pattern repetition is at the core of so many musical traditions and one would think that more repetition would lead to an easier way to access meaning, but it is not as straightforward.
[Holly] I think with each musical artist, part of the effect of repeated exposure is that you come to learn the specific reward systems that are implicit in each artist’s method/style. With only one sense directly activated by music—hearing—I think memory of previous listens and the anticipation that creates can play a Pavlovian role, conditioning listeners to enjoy what’s to come. With only one sense directly activated by music—hearing—I think memory of previous listens and the anticipation that creates can play a Pavlovian role, conditioning listeners to enjoy what’s to come.
[Alice] I wanted to talk a bit about the video Tomasz Skibicki and Elif Satanaya Özbay directed for your new single Freefall. Being a producer your face and physical presence is oftentimes absent and disembodied, unlike many singer-songwriters and popstars. Except for a few specific examples I can think of, the producer, or certain human elements of the production never really make a physical appearance in the music videos. In the Freefall music video, Elif’s voice finds itself a body, her presence suddenly so strong and affirming it feels almost pop-icon-like.
[Gediminas] The impulse to invite Tomasz Skibicki and Elif Satanaya Özbay was initially driven to by wanting to have Elif, who is one of the leading voices in both of the records, as the performer and the director, to have that impulse of Elif sculpting the world around her voice, trying to find embodiment for herself the way she would want to. I think Tomasz being a close collaborator of Elif, and a really intriguing and talented artist, his presence seemed to have allowed for the process to keep that intimacy and to introduce another rich layer to the project. In the future, Holly and I would like to work with the other voice actors in the record, to allow them to claim their voices, especially as all of the voice actors are strong artists with their own distinct visual languages. I think the thing that I am genuinely most happy about the Freefall video, it’s that it is so nice to see our community have some sort of visual document, as the sound can be so abstract. It feels like words literally became flesh with the video.
[Alice] It’s very powerful and intimate to see the video blooming through the voices and the agents on the album, and imagine what some of those other artists would contribute visually to transmutate their involvement with your music. I stan.