MiShinnah THe HearTH Ishtar Performance – Sound – Media: An Interview with Elise Kermani
By Evelin Stermitz, July 2013.
Elise Kermani is a sound and intermedia artist based in New York City. She is Artistic Director of MiShinnah Productions, a company dedicated to promoting collaborative cross-genre artwork. She holds a PhD in Media Philosophy from the European Graduate School and a Master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Arts from Columbia College Chicago. In the 1990s, she performed as an extended vocalist in her interactive multimedia performances, and with the new music ensemble TROUSERS. Currently, she works with musicians, actors, dancers, visual artists, and puppeteers to realize her work. Over the past ten years, she has composed music for the choreographer Vicky Shick and visual artist Barbara Kilpatrick. In May 2012, she traveled to Athens, Greece with her film JOCASTA, a modern post-Freudian retelling of the Oedipus myth. She teaches Media Arts and The History and Theory of New Media at SUNY Empire State College.
Evelin Stermitz: Could you introduce your background? How did you evolve as an artist, and what are your fields of artistic practice?
Elise Kermani: I actually started out as a pianist and a painter. I was pursing a double major in visual art and music at DePauw University. In my junior year, I switched from Piano Performance to Music Composition. After college, I entered a master’s program in Interdisciplinary Arts at Columbia College Chicago and began exploring performance art and electronic music.
Now both of these fields are quite common, but at the time in the early 1980s, there weren't too many people doing electronic performance art, and definitely not a lot of women! When I moved to Los Angeles after getting my Master’s in 1985, I began writing sound poetry and performing it over electronic music scores. This poem was written on the day I got married in 1985: elisekermani.com/Spiral.pdf, and I have been performing it in various manifestations throughout the years. Recently, I used the poem as a score for dance (2013): soundcloud.com/elisekermani/spiraltromping.
Then I moved to Houston, continuing this work and eventually adding video to my performances. I moved to Brooklyn in 1992 and experimented with interactive motion sensors where my movement and words would control the video and audio processing: elisekermani.com/Dreaming.pdf and elisekermani.com/ANNE_peph.pdf.
Around the mid-1990s, I started composing scores for theater and dance. I moved upstate in 1996 and worked as a curator for the Electronic Arts Performance Series at Rensselaer: www.arts.rpi.edu. In 2003, I started teaching Digital Media at Hunter College, and began creating art pieces based on the theme of the origins of language. I earned my PhD in Media Philosophy in 2007 from The European Graduate School: www.egs.edu. My dissertation was "Sonic Soma: Sound, Body and the Origins of the Alphabet": www.egs.edu/pdfs/elise-kermani-sonic-soma.pdf. A companion to my dissertation was JOCASTA: www.elisekermani.com/jocasta.html, a film based on a modern retelling of Euripides' Oedipus. My dissertation book and film was the philosophical culmination of 20+ years of working with sound, body, and language in performance art.
E. St.: You currently teach at a SUNY distance learning campus. How does your experience feed into academia?
E. K.: Last year, I developed two undergraduate advanced level courses for SUNY Empire State College: The History and Theory of New Media and Media Arts.
I love teaching these online courses because it keeps me up to date on what is going on with new technologies. The courses are open enough that the student can develop their own plan of study depending on their interests. I think students always learn better and create better art if they are self-motivated. The way to get them motivated is to find out who they are and what their interests are, and to let them educate themselves by following their passions.
We have a media arts festival in the Second Life virtual world for the students to present their final projects. Since most of the students are long distance (artists anywhere in the world can take my courses), the festival is the only time we meet each other. We gather there via our digital avatars in a private hall designed specifically for University virtual events.
E. St.: You are a performer and composer while also teaching media art. How do you balance teaching with performing?
E. K.: Currently my performances consist of “mixing” sound scores live to theater and dance, and I am not the main focus on stage. I prefer to stay objective, to be able to watch the actors or dancers, and support the performances by providing a solid sonic structure. I’ve been working with the choreographer Vicky Shick and visual artist Barbara Kilpatrick in New York City for the last ten years, and we have done five collaborations together.
I teach media art, which is very different than teaching “media”. For instance, I do not teach film or television production. But if the student is creating a film, I guide them conceptually through the pitch, storyboarding, production schedule, and into postproduction and beyond. We ask questions like, “Who is your audience? How are you going to reach your audience? What is your message?” We study Marshall McLuhan and Alan Turing, and we read the philosophy of Lev Manovich. I require all my students to visit websites such as artfem.tv and rhizome.org, and if possible attend events at NYC venues like Eyebeam and Harvestworks.
E. St.: What is your current artistic approach to performance and digital media?
E. K.: I am not interested in cutting edge technologies at the moment. The younger generations have surpassed me on that subject! I guess I was on the cutting edge in the 1980s and 1990s, and now those technologies are the standard in performance. It became too difficult for me to keep learning new programs; all of the software and hardware I once worked with went out of business or was no longer available! Now I am interested in creating larger canvases – performances with themes of political, literary, or historical significance.
I think it is more efficient for me to take a step back from actually doing the work. For instance, I like to hire the dancer or the puppeteer or the singer to see my vision through. I like to collaborate with people who are masters at their own craft. I feel that my craft is sound design, and often I become a facilitator for someone else's vision. Sometimes I am at the helm of directing that vision, and other times I follow someone else's direction. I am equally happy in both positions.
E. St.: Could you talk more about your philosophy of the arts?
E.K.: I am becoming more interested in the classics, and in classical forms. I did all my experimentation back in the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps I am coming full circle back to my roots in classical piano performance. In my opinion, contemporary art is no improvement upon the classics – and in the arts, we desperately need a stability of form. My challenge is to make contemporary art with classical content, form, and substance.
The current state of the arts and American culture is stooping to the lowest common denominator. I think artists should be ahead of the curve, not behind it, and certainly not commentators on a “present” state. Journalists do that. Our world is confused; it is in transition and changing rapidly. Artists need to be shamans to see through the confusion and offer an alternative positive substantive and orderly universe.
Beauty, form, universal themes, and classical constructs will outlast the current trends of trash as art.
Recently I've started working with puppeteers and dancers. I like the world of puppets and dance because you can tell a story but it does not need to be literal or linear. The most extreme emotional states can be expressed in an aesthetic way without being over the top. I'm also interested in mythology and ritual, and these stories are better told through a form that does not need words.
E. St.: What are the challenges to creating performance pieces?
E. K.: The biggest challenges to artists in America are financial ones. I recently realized that I have backed myself into a corner: I am no longer creating solo pieces that I can write in my studio and then go into a small performance space and perform them myself for practically a few hundred dollars' budget. I have grown into the habit of making pieces that require 30 or more artists/collaborators, and that is extremely expensive. So it usually takes me 4-5 years between new pieces. It wasn't a conscious choice but rather an intellectual, psychic, and creative need. I’d rather make less art, but make each artwork more meaningful.
I have to communicate my inner vision to my collaborators, and that translation is not always easy. Many times along the way I have to compromise, but sometimes by working with other people the project turns out surprisingly more powerful than I had ever imagined!
E. St.: Did you face any obstacles as a woman in the art world?
E. K.: In 1993 when I started this compact disc compilation of women composers called dice on Ishtar, my recording label: www.elisekermani.com/diceessay.html and
www.amazon.com/Dice-2-Elise-Kermani/dp/B00003ETR1/ref=sr_1_2?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1373117143&sr=1-2, some people said that I was putting women in a ghetto and that separating women from the mainstream was not interesting. But I was interested in seeing what women would produce if they were separated from the male culture.
I put out an international call for work for the third edition in 2003 and women composers from all over the world responded. They said they still felt ostracized as women in electronic music. It was still an “old boys’ club” in 2003. I believe now in 2013 the numbers are much better, but for a while electronic music educational systems were 99% male. For a woman to come into academia and be successful, she would have to act just like one of the guys to get work. Or she would be incredibly alone; a lone wolf, so to speak.
E. St.: You also produced a series of performance films on mythology and philosophy. Could you give an overview of them and your approach?
E. K.: Well, I will start with the most recent project and work backwards in time: elisekermani.blogspot.com/2013/05/a-work-in-progress-performance-film.html. We are currently working on a project based on the Iphigenia mythology inspired by the films of Michael Cacoyannis and the play from Euripides. The work in progress, currently called Iphigenia 2.0, is a short film and includes texts (voiceover) from various Iphigenia stories throughout the ages: Ovid, Euripides, Goethe, and modern playwright Ellen McLaughlin. I’ve asked visual artist Luis Tentindo to make two puppets for me: a small girl (Iphigenia) and a wolf puppet (her companion named Lupo, an imaginary dog of Artemis). These two puppets are the main characters. There are also the puppeteers who are visible, and it is wonderful to see the interaction between the puppets and the puppeteers. It is still very much in progress, but we eventually want this to be a full-length play that would include video and ultimately be filmed as a feature film.
Going back three years, in August 2010, we premiered and filmed a performance at 3LD Art and Technology Center in NYC (www.3ldnyc.org) called POE […and the Museum of Lost Arts]: www.elisekermani.com/poe.html. It is loosely based on the “virtual” friendship between Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe. Baudelaire admired Poe’s work and felt a brotherly love toward him even though he never met Poe in real life. Many established artists from the New York scene were involved in creating the piece, and the result was an interdisciplinary theater piece with music, video, puppetry, and dance. We also have a French version of the play ready for Francophiles who love Baudelaire.
E. St.: How do you see Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe in a feminist context?
E.K.: It is well known that both these 19th century writers had difficult relationships with women. Poe is famously quoted as saying the “most perfect image was a young beautiful dead woman”, and Baudelaire was in a long, abusive relationship with his mistress. In our play, it is Techne, The Goddess of Invention (played by Pamela Z) who guides both of these authors into reconciliation with the female aspect of their identities, their “animas”.
Four years before, in 2006, we filmed JOCASTA, a modern version of Euripides’ play The Phoenician Women (written 410 BCE) that we performed in a large 5-story burned out stone barn in upstate New York. As I mentioned above, the film JOCASTA was part of my PhD dissertation, and it is a creative expression of my theory of the origin of the alphabet. Last year in May 2012, I presented JOCASTA in Athens, Greece, and the film was translated back from English into modern Greek. It was probably the highlight of my whole career to see the work come full circle and come home to Greece to an audience that understood who Jocasta is, mythologically and symbolically. We talked with members of the audience for hours after the performance about the deeper meaning of language and the identity of Iocasta (a.k.a. Jocasta) and Oedipus and how the alphabet was brought to the Greeks. It’s all in my dissertation if you want to read more.
I am very much interested in the art of language and how a piece metamorphoses when translated into another tongue. Our new project Iphigenia 2.0 will probably be translated into Persian, because part of it will take place in the Evin prison of Tehran, Iran.
I'm interested in history, mythology, and the meaning of symbolic archetypes: the balance of male/female, yin/yang element in human relationships and in human identities. This is what ties all of my performances and films together. My particular feminist philosophy includes an effort to balance the Jungian archetypes of the male/female, anima/animus forces within the individual.
E. St.: Could you tell more about the art group MiShinnah Productions that you founded?
E. K.: MiShinnah Productions was formed in 2009 as a place for artists to create challenging large-scale collaborative work: www.mishinnah.org.
I've always been interested in collage, and I come from a large family. So perhaps what I'm trying to do is create a community of artists with an alternative value system, a system that is not based on commercial or popular tastes. Our values revolve around an aesthetic of history, discovery, and artistic collaboration.
I say “collage” because that's what it was like for me growing up in a big family; so much was going on, daily activities were like patchwork. The big picture was some sort of large organized chaos, held together by “community”. What I was doing individually had to fit into the bigger picture of the whole family. What was good for the individual was good for the whole.
E. St.: What kind of future can you imagine for 21st century media performance art?
E. K.: I think that the artists and audiences of the future will be looking for truth and beauty in art.
When I speak about beauty, I am referring to the type of beauty that Charles Baudelaire speaks of. Baudelaire says that strangeness is a necessary ingredient to beauty. You can't construct beauty, and art cannot be created merely from symmetry and order. There has to be an element of the “odd” or the uncanny, the magical, the mysterious, or the strange to make something beautiful.
When I say truth, I do not mean that we get a factual report of what's going on in the world, but rather that the artwork shows an awareness of history and current events. It then rises above the facts, and goes deeper under the surface to create symbols and rituals that express a more comprehensive understanding of the world. Art should make the audience think and feel more. Art should be what remains after the material world disappears.
I think contemporary society is psychically sick and detached from reality. We have lost our ethical sense of what is important and what is right and wrong. Instead of really thinking (Heidegger) as individuals, we get spoon-fed pre-proscribed, already digested opinions. Instead of deciding ourselves whether we like art or not, we assume that we have to like it because it is already famous, and therefore has already been validated. It is in MoMA or the Whitney or the Met, so we have to admire it.
It is a “no-no” to talk about morality in art, but when I see the same trash get recognition over and over, it seems like the artists are playing an obvious joke on us. We have to be brave and honest, and support the work that psychically feeds us. We cannot keep giving recognition and awards to the trash of the already famous just because they are already well known. I don't care who you are and where you are from – if you make a great piece of art, it is much better and much more needed in this universe than the trash of someone already famous.
E. St.: I would like to ask you to conclude the interview with a poem from one of your early sound pieces.
E. K.: I’ll include “THe HearTH” vocal score, here’s a link to my vocal performance of the same piece recorded in 1991: www.elisekermani.com/mp3/HearTH.mp3. This composition used my voice to trigger midi patches on the Digitech DSP128 and Digitech FaderMaster, processing it into delays, reverbs, and loops. At the time this was recorded in 1991, this sort of live vocal processing was new; now it is pretty commonplace.