Eli Cortiñas was born in 1979, in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain, and lives and works in Berlin. She studied at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, and at the European Film College at Ebeltoft in Denmark. Since then, she has shown her work widely internationally, at institutions such as the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt/Main, the Berlinische Galerie in Berlin, Riga Biennial of Contemporary Art, the Gijón International Film Festival, and the Museum of Modern Art in Moscow. A large part of her practice revolves around perpetually challenging cinematic memory, analysing and re-editing pre-existing footage, and intertwining it with a meticulous montage of the artist’s own material.
Eli Cortiñas’ solo exhibition Remixers Never Die, curated by Neringa Bumblienė, opens on 28 November at the Contemporary Art Centre (CAC) in Vilnius.
Neringa Bumblienė: How and why did you come to art? I know it’s a rather strange question to ask; however, it always important for me to understand the reasons behind a person’s decision, and if it is fulfilled.
Eli Cortiñas: I wish I had Marcel Broodthaers’ genius idea to mark my birth as an artist as he did, when he decided to stop being a poet, and announced the beginning of his life as an artist. On the other hand, like the fabulous Tomaso Binga, when she decided to become a male artist, I cannot pinpoint a specific moment when I consciously decided to become an artist. I have been very connected to film, and from a very early age I wrote short stories.
After some years in Germany, I ended up getting a grant to study cinema in Denmark. Right afterwards, and almost by chance, I became a film editor, and worked for a few years in Copenhagen. I was an editor for documentary and experimental films, and later studied art at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne in Germany. I fell in love with film montage, and decided to use editing as a writing tool, as a tool for creation. So from then on, I would integrate footage generated by myself, or from other sources, into collages of moving images, sculptures or paper arrangements.
You were born in the Canary Islands, and for many years now you have been based in Berlin. To an outsider, it seems the two societies are rather different. If so, how do the differences affect you and your work?
There is a scene in L’Avventura, a film by Antonioni, in which a bourgeois character sailing around the Aeolic Islands looks at the islands and says: ‘I’ve never understood the islands, all surrounded by water, poor things.’ I love starting my lectures with that clip. Somehow, I can understand the estrangement, or foreignness, that a non-islander might feel towards the islands.
The feeling of being isolated when you come from an island is real, but there is also a huge empowerment that emanates from the knowledge of being an autonomous organism that doesn’t ‘need’ to be physically connected to the main country in order to develop life. The ocean and the lively mythology and history surrounding the early settlements from North Africa and the later colonisation of the Canary Islands form a natural part of an emancipated imagery and a sense of identity that have accompanied me from early on. It was clear to me since I was a child that I would travel and learn languages, and I was obsessed with the idea of becoming ‘a foreigner’. I guess being born into an émigré Cuban family somehow reinforced the idea of moving as a possible form of life. I also needed to liberate myself from the misogynist expectations and views of women that rule over the family structures I was surrounded by. I saw in moving the possibility to reinvent not only a new me, but an emancipated me. Therefore, leaving home at an early age to move to northern Europe wasn’t so harsh, and the changes that came with it were an adventure for me. Sometimes they still are. Of course, this dislocation has had an enormous influence on the work I do. I always feel like a visitor in the languages I use, and the formats I choose, and, as an artist in general, I thrive on the feeling of being some sort of impostor, in the sense that I can take on a different persona each time. I’m quite a chameleon, and can easily adapt to new environments. I think that’s the result of having lived in so many different places.
You could say that an actor always plays the same role, and that a writer always writes the same book, just because of who they are and how they see the world. Your work is a mixture of found footage and newly recorded material, which in the end is often rather personal. How important is your personal story in your artistic practice?
My personal story functions as a sort of catalyst, through which I project emotions or communicate a certain narrative. I am less interested in personal events, and more in what the format of the so-called real or personal conveys, what expectations develop towards that sort of imagery and narrative, and how to manipulate and work against them in order to make the spectator question the way she looks at things. This idea of not trusting the images, not taking them for what they seem to be, is the foundation of the research-driven and labour-intense work I do, when I revise the tones of already-existing films and appropriate them to make the images walk again.
This summer, Lithuanian national television broadcast all the James Bond films, from the very first ones made at the beginning of the 1960s, to the very recent ones made in the 2000s. The films are known for being rather sexist, but I guess this also represents woman’s actual image in society then. It was interesting to observe how representation changes over the years. In GoldenEye (1995), Judi Dench is recast to portray M, becoming the first female actress to embody the character. In the film, she says that James Bond, the spy, is an obsolete sexist remnant of the Cold War.
Developing your artistic ideas, you frequently use found footage from films made quite a few decades ago. Why is this material interesting to you today?
Well, at some point they needed to articulate that in the Bond saga they couldn’t keep it as anachronistic as it had been in the past, and of course they also wanted to make sure they attracted new and more emancipated audiences. I don’t trust that machinery at all. The misogyny-driven construction still underlines those films, and women still have a mission in either giving pleasure or killing the guy. He remains at the centre of the action. It’s funny that you mention that series of films, because I have been working with the Bond movies for years, and have been developing a plot line between all the female characters. The work will be called Despite 007, and Bond is never seen, or even mentioned. But going back to the question of the choices of material I make: using material from a certain time on one hand is reflected in the imagery I was socialised with, but it also means working with material that has been mostly canonised by (film) history. Of course, these ideas are ones I tend to question and subvert, in order to send into a crisis the whole narration, and whose perspective it is narrated from. I’m particularly interested in scrutinising material that has built a collective memory. I must admit that my approach is changing, though, and so are the sources of my material. A few years ago, I went back to producing images with the camera again, back to my documentary roots, so to speak. It felt almost unnatural not to do so, since producing images has become such an integral part of our lives, and a tool to create our social identity. I’m getting more and more interested in images as a stream of uncontrollable production, with all of us being producers of images nowadays. These images might not be anchored in time, canonised, or institutionalised yet, but it is precisely that volatile character and urgent ‘presentism’ that turns them into an exciting vehicle for me, as I operate without a heritage, and probably without a future.
Your video work is made up of distinct material: found footage, newly made records, various languages, places and epochs. We can perceive it somehow like a moving collage. Moreover, you make two-dimensional collages, as well. What came first, and why did you decide to work in both media?
Juxtaposing images in time and space, instead of editing them linearly, is a way not just of making a point and defending it, but also of offering a variety of perspectives, and questioning the point of departure. It’s also a way of correlating images and meanings that evades my perception and control. The images I create (and by the word ‘image’ I mean a sequence, a film, a story, a collage, a sculpture …) are completed with the help of the spectator’s mind, and what she brings to the table in terms of knowledge, emotional investment and experience. I am convinced that what I present is just half the image; the other half is created in the mind of the beholder, who brings the technology to decipher the message. In that sense, it doesn’t really matter what approach I choose, if it’s analogue or audio-visual; the main thing for me is to ask the idea, the motivation or the material what vehicle it needs to transform, translate and manifest itself.
Your video work is often presented in a gallery setting. How important is this spatiality to you? What difference do you make between a gallery setting and a cinema?
I consider video not only time-based, but also space-based. There is a certain aura that can only be created through spatial decisions. Then again, there is a spatiality within the construction of video that is inherent to it. I try to be very specific about the construction of the installation, the size of the projections, the environments, the immersive experience, the textures in the room, etc. Some of the pieces I create are not destined from the beginning to be shown in a cinema setting, especially when they are conceived as loops, a form that I’m intrigued by. The German artist Peter Roehr often spoke about the materiality of footage, and how it behaves in relation to time and space, how there are tangible properties to all material we rarely perceive, unless we experience the material several times next to each other or with each other (in space) and behind each other (in time).
There is always a fundamental difference between both experiences, cinematic and exhibition, but I try not to impose a hierarchy between these two systems of spectatorship. We might tend to think that the cinema projection suits my work naturally, because I appropriate and display cinematic imagery, but at times it is that very process of dislocating and physically de-composing and reconstructing that makes cinematic imagery autonomous and free to deliver its message.
Besides your artistic career, you are also a professor. How do the two fields overlap, and perhaps enrich each other?
I’ve never been a big fan of the asymmetry of power encountered in the academy. That’s why I’ve always tried to see students as fellow artists, as my contemporaries. When I was asked to teach for a few years at the academy in Kassel, I remember asking myself: What did I enjoy most when I was a student? What would feed me intellectually and artistically back then, and what did I miss the most? In a way, in my time as a professor I have tried to evoke what nurtured me when I was a student myself. I created an extensive programme on audio-visual imagery and culture, and discussed urgent theoretical and critical practices and matters with students. The resulting critical thinking and encounters with students have definitely not only inspired, but also nurtured, me as an artist immensely. They have made me hopeful again. Working as a professor is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done, besides doing my own artistic work.
You speak a lot in your work about the representation of woman and her place in a capitalist society. What do you think of the #metoo movement, and the reply by French women, led by Catherine Deneuve?
In my work, I often review the role imposed on women throughout history, emphasising the characters that debate themselves between the oikos and the outside. I am interested in the dialectic between authenticity and representation, within a sometimes fruitless and mostly violent pursuit of identity. It is violence that comes from an expectation and a projection forced upon a cultural body, often inscribed on to a gender. In that sense, my work will always underline a feminist, decolonialist and unyielding position.
There is no doubt that the #metoo movement has set important debates in motion, but it has also proven the flaws of some discourses, their ethnocentricity, and how a movement can be counter-appropriated, instrumentalised, or rapidly capitalised on. The rebuff is almost a given thing, it’s a phenomenon we’re experiencing everywhere: the exacerbation of violence against women, the increase in extremely vulnerable living and working conditions, the denial of our anthropogenic condition, the increase in right-wing extremism through populism, all showing structural and institutional racism and misogyny. The list is endless, and these are challenging times, but la lotta continua!*
* The fight goes on.
Photography: Courtesy the artist, Waldburger Wouters, Brussels, Soy Capitan, Berlin