CONVERSATIONS Mousse 49
The Way They Have Sex Is to Cuddle, Then This Strange Ectoplasm Liquid Comes out of Different Parts of Their Bodies: Dora Budor
Kathy Noble and Dora Budor in Conversation
Kathy Noble met with Dora Budor—an artist of Croatian origin based in New York—to discuss the influence of cinema on her work, interweaving the staged fiction of film with lived experience: ranging from cyberpunk and symbiogenesis, to the endless worries and politics of being a human body and mind, via physical scars, infection, illness, ageing, the survival of our psyche, and the body’s lymphatic relationship to physical environments—all of which manifest in Budor’s work. Discussing ideas related to science fiction —from the disturbing visions of David Cronenberg, to popular Hollywood blockbusters—they consider cinema as a space in which alternative worlds can be constructed to form a social commentary that addresses contemporaneous issues and anxieties; from ecological apocalypse to the evolution of artificial intelligence.
And situated this in a wider consideration of the affect of conscious and unconscious fantasy in relation to “real” experience.
KATHY NOBLE: When did you start working with film, or the movies, as a subject, and why?
DORA BUDOR: My interest began when I was very young. My grandfather was an actor for television and theatre in Yugoslavia where I grew up. And my grandmother was one of the first female television directors. My parents were both painters and would take me to see art house films all the time. I remember watching Fellini’s and Bergman’s films when I was about six, and being totally unable to understand them.
KN: Did you enjoy them?
DB: I enjoyed them, but I didn’t get them properly. I remember really loving Amarcord (1973). I could relate to it because the characters were insane and loving at the same time. They reminded me of my family where everyone had their own very peculiar story. The scene where crazy uncle Teo climbs up the tree and screams “Voglio una donna!” (“I want a woman!”), and then the people from the asylum march up the ladder to return him to the asylum. “We are all mad at times,” sighs his brother afterwards. My grandad would smoke 3 packs of cigarettes per day, and there were always ashes in the really delicious meals he would prepare for hours. He wrote poetry, and when he was 65 he ended up becoming a general in the Yugoslavian war. He taught me how to shoot like a sniper, too! My grandma liked to drink a lot; she was kind of a wild one. And my parents were “normal,” though not at all normal in comparison with all the other families from my school. I remember when my peers saw my dad digging through furniture and garbage on the street looking for some old etchings; I was so embarrassed that I cried afterward: “I just wish my parents worked in a bank and were normal!” I began to go to film festivals when I was a teenager, but the blockbuster industry was considered very trashy.
KN: But your work deals with these very clichéd popular movies.
DB: I did watch some blockbusters, but when I moved to the US seven years ago my friend took me to the cinema. The experience was radically different from going to the cinema in Europe. In the States people got involved in it as a kind of public event. Ten friends together, eating popcorn and screaming at the characters on the screen. It felt so different than the solitary art cinema experience I was used to.
KN: Yes, that’s true! I had that experience in a cinema in LA; the audience was so excited and so vocal. Like a mass, communal experience. The repressed English person in me was really confused.
DB: Everyone had a strong emotional reaction and connection with what was happening in the movie. I became really excited.
KN: Cinema is often talked about as a collective experience.
DB: I also noticed how Americans referred to television and cinema much more in their daily lives than Europeans do.
KN: Almost as if these things are non-fiction and a part of their emotional reality?
DB: Yes. And it’s a kind of American cultural legacy, which artists like Warhol of course tapped into. During my first week in New York I felt like I was actually living in a film set, since I knew those environments already, from watching them.
KN: The architectures become like characters in themselves.
DB: It was an extreme form of déjà vu, quite surreal. I began researching props and staging, out of pure obsession. I wanted to know how these things were structured, staged, made and performed.
KN: So you were seeing this dominant Western mainstream thing in reverse, as an outsider, as a kind of “other.”
DB: In an odd way. I felt very much a foreigner. European cinematography is extremely different. So this helped me to understand American culture and the way people communicate.
KN: It sounds like a kind of anthropological investigation that you were making, in relationship to the tools and mechanics used in production.
DB: I became fascinated by the tropes that are created and repeat themselves. Blockbusters at surface level might seem entertaining and flat. But there are many different sublevels of political and social relationships or commentaries that occur in them too.
KN: Yes. Certain story lines are infinitely repeated and become part of the “real” social narratives we live in, though they are fictional; a kind of soft or covert indoctrination into certain politics, behaviors or patterns of thought.
DB: Yes, and the genres—such as sci-fi or action—reinforce this. If you look at the last few years of sci-fi blockbusters, there are specific topics that get focused on all at once. This year has been about artificial intelligence, with movies such as Transcendence (2014) and Ex Machina (2015), or Lucy (2014). But two or three years ago it was the imminent apocalypse and global warming destroying the world, with scenarios about what happens afterwards to rebuild humanity, such as Snowpiercer, After Earth or Pacific Rim (all 2013).
KN: So they were dealing with the actual social situations and politics of the moment, forming fictional paradigms of what’s happening in reality.
DB: Scientists and researchers are exploring these fields via experimental and philosophical research. In film there is this wide-open playground where you can actually imagine and test out these scenarios in the most extreme form of speculation. Film enables these propositions to become a temporary reality.
KN: Why did you become interested in science fiction in particular—for this relationship between reality and imagination? In some ways sci-fi seems almost religious—as a form of myth making and creation of belief systems, or alternative realities.
DB: I loved Blade Runner (1982). When I was a teenager I was into cyberpunk. But the works translated into Croatian were really bizarre. Like the B or C versions of cyberpunk books. I developed an obsession with the future scenarios: who are we going to become, how are our bodies going to improve, or degrade? How will our emotions change when we become different kinds of beings? Are we still human if we gradually integrate AI into our lives? What are the limits of being a human?
KN: So what constitutes being a “human”? Is it our consciousness that makes us human?
DB: This is the question that Transcendence and all those AI movies are asking. But of course it is a real question for scientists working today. And various approaches appear—firstly, a fear of robots taking over humanity, becoming more evolved than us, and destroying us, in a Darwinian way. I am more interested in the idea of “symbiogenesis” that Donna Haraway wrote about in the book When Species Meet (Posthumanities), 2007.
KN: All of her thoughts around this began in the 1980s when she wrote the Cyborg Manifesto in 1983, which was extremely radical and interweaves this all in strong socialist-feminist politics. I re-read it recently when I was writing about Lynn Hershman Leeson, who was also way ahead of her time in exploring human relationships to technology and alternate forms of “being.”
DB: And Haraway’s book The Companion Species Manifesto, 2003, about dogs and people’s relationships in the evolution of humans, is important—where species are not pitted against one another, making it necessary to destroy in order to evolve, but things can evolve in relationship to one another. If robots or AI start existing en masse in the human world and become more “human,” then we will need to evolve together.
KN: Which goes back to the question of what we consider human. Does human mean a sentient being with its own unique thought processes? In relationship to your recent work, the fact that you use props that have been created and used in films seems to fetishize these things’ existence. Although you speak of being an outsider to American culture, rather than a critique this seems like a kind of love, of wanting to own a part of this industry.
DB: The movie memorabilia community does fetishize these objects. They all have their own provenance, based on which characters used them in which scenes. The actor touching it is digitalized and will exist forever. All have the “two” copies—their “real” physical existence and their digital existence. They have fictional histories of their own. We remember these scenes as if they exist, a kind of alternative reality, in our common hive mind.
KN: Well, it is then part of human history or a form of collective consciousness.
DB: There is also some kind of sadness around these objects. Their real-life being is never as perfect as their on-screen being. You can see chipped paint and their fakeness, or the way they have a perfect front with unfinished back, filled in with expandable foam. They are made to exist as a perfect image on screen.
KN: That’s not very different from stage sets and theatre props. They exist as temporary images.
DB: When I work with them I try to reanimate them.
KN: Bring them back to life.
DB: I think a lot of my work is about reanimation.
KN: The relationship between the body and consciousness, or physical and psychological feelings?
DB: Yes. I make them actors in a new narrative. But they are still in between being alive and being dead. For example the series of works The Architect… (2014)—which are these infested electrical wall pieces—there is some kind of life about them, because they are familiar enough that they could be part of a human body. Or the “breathing” chairs with Bruce Willis’ prosthetics from the movie Surrogates (Mental Parasite Retreat 1 and 2, 2015).
KN: I was thinking about the rupture between the inside and the outside in your work, and what it means in terms of a physical body and a psychological body, since you are dealing with broken, wounded bodies. Is the physical rupture also a metaphor for a psychological rupture or feeling of pain?
DB: I often use prosthetics of scars or wounds that have been made for movies. When they are applied to an actor’s skin they look believable and become real. I am interested in bodies that have histories—they change and are scarred by events we live through. The body has survived those events. These are not bodies given by nature, but engineered by existing in the world. I find scars empowering, as reminders and as “objects” that tell a story.
KN: They are a physical embodiment of something that was probably also psychologically traumatic.
DB: Yes. Among David Cronenberg’s films, Crash relates to this in particular. And to how wounds turn into characters of their own, how the body can be ruptured and penetrated in so many different ways. Male bodies become “female” bodies via their wounds. I think it inverts the biological gender roles in some ways.
KN: I think a lot of Cronenberg’s movies address the relationship between the mind and body, and also conscious and unconscious thought, which is played out by these openings in the body—as if the unconscious were seeping out, or penetrating into the conscious.
DB: Yes, parasites or things both entering your body or oozing out of your body. In his second movie Crimes of the Future, 1970—which is set in the future but actually looks like some Eastern European socialist country—after a catastrophic plague resulting from cosmetic products has killed the entire population of sexually mature women, there is a world of only men. The way they have sex is to cuddle, then this strange ectoplasm liquid comes out of different parts of their bodies, like a foot or a nipple.
KN: It sounds a little like lactating, like oozing breast milk, not necessarily sexual.
DB: Somewhere between breast milk and semen, and other bodily fluids. I was reading a book about viruses, A Planet of Viruses (2011), which discusses how the word virus came to exist. They were first called contagious living fluids, and afterwards we inherited the word from the Roman Empire, where it meant both the venom of a snake and the semen of a man. Which relates to the idea of the body of the film as a virus, thus both visually and in terms of narrative. Like a virus, it is “alive” in some ways, yet not completely. It replicates itself and gets spread quickly through space and people. In the same way viruses carry genes, films carry codes, information and meaning.
KN: Yes, and then the same constructs are reinterpreted and repeated.
DB: They can mutate and change, and then imbed themselves in the body of the spectator, which becomes the host. This is something Cronenberg has spoken about. These ideas inspired the works in my exhibition The Architect’s Plan, His Contagion, and Sensitive Corridors (2015) at New Galerie. I wanted the works to somehow infect the space and spread like a disease.
KN: These works themselves look like infected bodies, all broken, wounded or ruptured. You are clearly drawn to a form of abjection.
DB: Everything was made more alive. The chairs “breathed” and you could hear this and see a slight pulsation. I like to create a tension between seduction and repulsion.
KN: Yes, that is what I meant by abjection. The fascination of the horror.
DB: I wanted to merge bodies with environment, or the architectures we live in. The objects we touch and inhabit become more like us and we become more like them. Also the relationship between the body and the infrastructure of a building—the pipes and electrical systems that run through it to keep it alive with water and heat.
KN: Architectures as living entities.
DB: We build our surroundings to host our bodies. I am making new sculptures for a solo exhibition at the Swiss Institute in New York that are a hybrid of arteries and veins with radiators and heating infrastructure. I was thinking about how energies travel through “bodies.” The sculptures are going to come out of the floor and walls. I was also thinking about the living parts of a building. There is a kind of grime or dirt that I find very specific to New York. Which also appears in the movies—there is always dirt in the subway, or grimy shots of Chinatown, with mold and other things growing and living on the infrastructure.
KN: I think this kind of growth of dirt and bacteria conjures up the abjection of sci-fi or horror, where what is “natural” mutates and becomes another being, or entity, that is uncontrollable.
DB: Which I think relates back to Donna Haraway, because we need to live alongside these things and work with them, not fight them. Sci-fi is also very Freudian.
KN: Yes, completely, particularly in relationship to the hidden or unseen becoming seen or remembered—the uncanny—or the unconscious surfacing and becoming reality. What else are you working on now?
DB: I’m doing a series of photographs for which I hired five special effects artists to do old-age prosthetics and make-up on the same model. I asked them to create the oldest woman in the world. Their interpretation was very different.
KN: I feel like there is a social pressure to be repelled by our decaying bodies. As if we were watching our own slow death.
DB: When we went to shoot on the streets people really stared. On one level you could see that it was fake, or mask-like. But it looked almost real—which is fascinating to observe, it makes you believe in it and distrust it at the same time. Plus she had this very old face on a very young body. It really changed her behavior and how I related to her, too. It was not really a character we created or performed, but something that was psychologically very different and affecting with each version.
KN: What made you want to think about the physicality of ageing?
DB: In some ways this whole body of work is about time. Which is a very general thing of course. But how do you track time? What are these moments of degradation or that mark it?
KN: It’s also a psychological construction of your consciousness that can change, without the system of markers we have in place.
DB: By tracking time using her body we changed feeling and behavior. But also—as Ted Pikul says in the film Existenz: “I am very worried about my body.” I am very worried about my body, too!
KN: So am I! In that I have a hypochondriac fear of it being out of my control.
DB: Yes. It’s not just being young. It’s also being capable of things. Whilst you are “healthy” you are not a burden to others. Particularly in American society with the current health system.
KN: Then it becomes an extremely political site. If you are not a capable working body then you are a social problem. Which is a very frightening idea. But it also feels true in relation to recent decisions by the UK government regarding mental and physical health and disability in terms of benefits and work. You become a social burden because you are deemed a financial burden.
DB: Once you are 18 in America you move away from your parents. I grew up in a socialist country where my parents lived with their parents until they were 30, even though they were married. It was a little like being part of a tribe. In America it feels like survival of the fittest.
KN: In one sense, to be a good, successful citizen, you have to keep “control” of your body. Achieving this control of ageing, health and looks means that you will be more and achieve more, and therefore be “better.” A good robot.
DB: Exactly. But can you imagine waking up as a 400-year-old? What would the world feel like?
KN: Do you know the work of Aubrey de Grey? He is a biomedical gerontologist who came to do a talk with Cécile B. Evans and me. He believes that by solving the factors of mitochondrial aging using regenerative medicine, we could live to the age of 1500 in the near future. The audience reaction was not related to the facts of the science. People were horrified by what life might be like, or feel like. Would you remember your life? Would it have any meaning? The construct of meaning to us is divided up by time, and also by marker points of achievement in that time.
DB: Would you become lazy and desensitized? As nothing would matter. Where is the urgency?
KN: Decaying and dying is frightening. Death is my biggest fear, because I can’t fathom my consciousness never existing again. But the idea of going on forever is equally terrifying.
DB: That is what hell is. Being human forever is suffering.
Dora Budor (b. 1984 in Croatia) lives and works in New York. Her work considers the representation of emotional and physical experience within the ideological subtexts that occur in mainstream cinema—particularly within Hollywood production methods, where ideas transfer between different states of materialization, fictionalization and digitalization. Budor makes sculptures and architectural interventions, which are often built around screen-used cinema props, special effects, and production methods, and employ the capital of cinematic strategies of affect. She approaches this as an act of “reanimation”: acknowledging their fictional histories, while radically recontextualizing them in a second life. Budor has exhibited extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe. Recent exhibitions include The Architect’s Plan, His Contagion and Sensitive Corridors, at New Galerie, Paris; Believe You Me with 247365, New York and Flat Neighbors at Rachel Uffner, New York; and group exhibitions such as Inhuman (2015) at the Fridericianum, Kassel. Recently she participated in panel discussions at Judd Foundation, Art Basel Miami Salon and the Whitney Museum of American Art. She is also a winner of the Rema Hort Emerging Art Award (2014) and is co-director of the project space Grand Century in New York. Budor has a forthcoming solo exhibition at Swiss Institute, New York (opening June 23, 2015).
Originally published on Mousse 49 (Summer 2015)