Time sometimes happens to stand still. A sequence of spectacles turns into a long sharp-tailed train. Terribly swollen itch-mites suck out each allusion to any possible transcendence from every breath. In a situation of representational crisis, the surface terrain is fed only by variations and accumulations. The harsh wind of forecast or usually unexpected scenarios blows through the walls of metal containers of totalised reality. It makes tired minds and bodies stir when reacting to endless rationalisations and deconstructions. They ruminate nausea and practise continuous rituals of untaming and reorientation. These moments usually seem almost unbearable. By the rejection of exaggerated psychologisation, you gradually come across the depth of the painful wound of something lacking. While externalised, it seizes the environment and freezes within it. ‘There’s a must of doing something about it,’ I think to myself the ambiguously driven thought.
It drives me like a shadow of remembrance of the project Under the Skin, initiated by the Lithuanian artist Kristina Inčiūraitė, my fondness of whose artistic work I’m willing to express to my dear reader. What an unbelievable coincidence – the guest star of this project was Maja Ratkje, a well-known Norwegian sound artist, whose sonic aesthetics were so familliar to me and valued since the discovery of the outstanding music album Voice, recorded by her in the year 2002 (I once even nominated Maja Ratkje as a personal discovery in a yearly celebratory questionnaire, published by the pioneering Lithuanian media platform balsas.cc). The very first impression actually seems like a ghostly presentiment that I used to experience the works of both artists in a somewhat different way to how I experience them now. I wouldn’t call this shift objectively immanent or inherent to my relationship with their ouvre itself, but rather a strange ‘shift towards the external’, which I intuitively found obviously saddening and somewhat devaluing. But, without any doubt, not in any judgemental sense at all. On the contrary, it is the very core, the problematic reference point: by paying attention to this ‘extrapolation’, I found myself not only raising the question what really happened, but also articulated a space for critical thought, which to a certain extent exceeded purely artistic intrigue.
Voice is a common topicality to both artists. To use slightly emphasised language, Kristina Inčiūraitė and Maja Ratkje, in their artistic domains, are virtuosos of the emancipated voice. In a given case, the notion is not merely political, defined by a certain narrative, and thus specific. The context here is much wider. For instance, while thinking about the female voice in the public sphere, the sound artist Marina Rosenfeld once expressed an intriguing inquiry: ‘Is echo political?’ An echo seems to be political per se in all its relevance here: it does not even require a deliberate attribution of meaning. Thus, it enfolds what is intimate, discreet, covered, revealed, intangible and bitter. It comes as no surprise that within the very stigma of this echo, all the context of artistic acting out gestures (as formulated by the American experimental writer Kathie Acker) of feminist art have been taking place. It is also absolutely relevant to the academic and popular discourses on gender. An echo is apt to return. However, just like the voice, it doesn’t return the gaze. That is why both echo and voice attract attention in the field of intensities, where visibility hides somewhere in the backstage of articulation.
And so here it is, a terra incognita, something completely ‘under the skin’, another undiscovered land. A wonderful pretext for cognition to get so pervasive in all its inertia. At first glance, it appears that we encounter two different artistic approaches: quite intimate voice-overs by women behind theatrical stages, urban panoramas and architectural interiors in a series of video works by Kristina Inčiūraitė (let’s take Stages, 2002–2005, as an example), and Maja Ratkje’s expressive, drastically unveiled, deeply rooted voice-in-itself, in her unique musical improvisational manner. However, the outcomes of a transformative turn towards the external are easily comparable, while the differences are rather formal. A reading of Kristina Inčiūraitė’s works, when practised through the glasses of ‘the initial authenticity’, presupposes a dialouge between the artwork and the perceiver, which could be described in the following way: impressionist, retrospective imagination floats easily and with somewhat transparent melancholy through bright, scenographic imagery, and slowly settles down among allusions, hush-ups, intonations, atmospheres, moods and narratives. By following a similar logic, or, to be more precise, mode of perception, introverted, intuitive hearing should nestle emotionally and aesthetically into the most sophisticated intensities and transformations of Maja Ratkje’s voice. This is how femininity reveals itself in the quite common, traditional sense of the word. But this revelation requires an emancipatory, and thus political, endeavour, that causes the echo and casts a shadow. The complexity of such side effects is prone to cause disturbances in this subtle terrain, full of reflections, projections and senses.
Such an intuitively embraced, misty, dreamlike, spacious sphere of the imagination is possible only because of its hideous avoidance of cognition. When its boundaries expand, a paradox appears. On the surface, it manifests itself by the effects of mediation, echo and spatiality as a certain construct. These components are important in the ouvre of both artists in general. But here they simply occupy the centre of attention, and evidently become the unquestionable core of it all. How does it actually happen?
Under the Skin opens up a discourse of spatial architectonics of representation. The performance situation takes place in the dark venue of the Vilnius culture club Kablys (the former Railroad Workers Palace), in a reconstructed hall used by skateboarders. Down the swooping trace, reminiscent of an orchestra pit, a choir is situated. The choir consists of members of the Pro Musica and Gaudeamus collectives. On one side of the pit, just by the entrance, the spectators are taking their places. On the other, on the opposite side of the hall, the conventional concert stage forms its ritualistic ‘altar-alike’ shape. Maja Ratkje is taking the soloist’s place. Kristina Inčiuraitė’s video projection is being screened behind her. The eye-catching towers of audio speakers, a balcony that is scenographically obtrusive when viewed in the shadowy darkness, stripped-down sealing constructions, holding black square plates, are apparently ascribed acoustic and scenery functions: the details that make their contribution to the somewhat dismal atmosphere of the whole sight. From the perspective of style, a concert situation recalls both industrial and ‘culturalised’ brutalism, a dark expressivity of ‘contemporary gothics’ (again, subcultural and ‘festivalised’ in a representative sense). Bearing in mind all the things that have been said, it is obvious that this particular ‘black box’, which takes advantage perfectly of the specificity of the place, is constructed as a structure for projections that reflect the dark nooks of the subconscious. The symbolic constitution of such strictly defined architectonics, which accomodates ritualised imagery, let us speak about it as a metaphor, with a collective, social, mythical and ideological meaning. A ‘black box’ refers to a certain content, which is never palpable and plainly clear on the usual conditions. These days, it often stands for a substitution for antique drama: even the three unities of action, time and space are to a certain extent maintained.
The musical composition consists of two parts. The first, introductory one, is an adaptation of the vocal piece Megapneumies (1963) by the avant-garde artist Gil Joseph Wolman, a member of Letterist International, an artistic movement founded in Paris. An original recording of the piece can be found in anthologies of radical avant-garde and experimental music, so the adaptation of it for a Classical choir also marks a symbolic inversion. The members of the choir are placed like a division of soldiers across a territorial unit. The performance, emphatically pathetic, theatrical and declarative men-woofing, almost literally recalls the title of the famous play Offending the Audience / Self-Accusation (1971) by the Austrian playwright Peter Handke. Meanwhile, on the stage above, Maja Ratkje pays respect to her personal artistic manner: she orchestrates inwrought musical textures, and drowns her transformed, proliferated, manipulated voice in them, by making use of a pile of digital and analogue gadgetry in a profoundly virtuoso way. Sonic textures fill this architectonic space by the discharge of symbolic excess, as if it was consciously devoted to this transformative act. We’ve learned from physics that energy, just like air, moves from an area of high density (or concentration) towards an area of lower density. This law of physics is somehow replicated here as a musical composition, the flow of sound and its spatial qualities condense the unquestionable ‘centre’ on the stage. It also has a pathetic and declarative character. It even gets quite grotesque when witnessing such a striking opposition between the leading role of solo performer and the clearly secondary role of the choir. It could be assumed that such a conceptual idea is a bit Brechtian: the conceptual distance is evident in the way of portraying this grotesque dramatic structure, and presenting it to the viewer as something that requires an analytical interpretation in itself. However, ambiguity remains: there is no pointing finger to direct our attention to this distance. Thus, it takes shape only in the mind of the perceiver. As the perceiver is also externalised and collective, a certain shade of noir shadow appears: what if the audience ignores this distance, and the grotesque is taken for granted? Such a misapprehension could invoke artistic intrigue in this particular theatrical situation … But bearing in mind references to social structures and rituals, this ambiguity is in no way neutral.
The composition by Maja Ratkje dives into both sides of the very thickness of the unconscious: as if you can hear something like ‘marihuana’ repeated by an almost exorcised voice, get lullabied by whisperings, scratches and churning, follow the passages of the recorded voice, dissolving in magnetic tape, duplicated by live vocal and irridiscent acoustic effects. Finally, one of a few climaxes in this highly dynamic composition touches your skin with tiny shivering: the stage is echoing in almost Führer-like intonations in a somehow abstract, slurred German dialect. It feels as if they’re dropping proliferated bubbles into a pit that has now turned into an imaginary pool, where the members of the choir are kneeling in frozen poses and observing the stage as if hypnotised. Later on, this whiff of intensity evaporates, and gradually shifts into something different. Acting out gestures hide under endless imitations, thus becoming a tool for a ruthless compositional rationalism (paradoxically inherent even in the experimental approach). And it is one more effect, caused by the inversive extrapolation.
By articulating a contextual background for the project, Kristina Inčiūraitė draws an indirect parallel with the film Under the Skin (2013) by Jonathan Glazier. Direct allusions, hints and even metaphors are not so easily grasped in the imagery of the performance, but an eloquent directionality might be found in the parallel. It is worth the choice of title for the project alone … as it bases the title in the logic of a quote, and in this respect turns all the complex content of the project into a developed paraphrase. The main role in the film is performed by the Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson. The plot and common atmosphere remind us of Nymphomaniac by Lars Von Trier. Essentially, it is a mix of road movie and seduction chronicles (there is such a genre, isn’t there?). The film is highly psychological: a character and her companions experience passionate transformations that are presented in a stylised way. These stylisations, which could be defined by a temperate surrealism, not too distant from the ordinary quotidian, are the most interesting feature of the film. Not to mention the main characters, of course. However, it still comes as a bit of a surprise that a film in conventional cinema language (and of relatively popular aesthetics) is chosen as the main contextual parallel for the project. Even if the reference is restricted to a single hint, and is approached simply as a pretext.
In the video work screened as a projection, Kristina Inčiūraitė remains faithful to her usual artistic manner: subtle, black and white, static or slow scenes – landscapes, panoramas and fragmentary portraits – emphasise different aspects of meaning, rather abstract, and follow each other with no rush. To the artist, this kind of imagery usually witnesses places and stories that are related to it. It opens up only to the gaze of an insightful viewer. This time, Kristina Inčiūraitė refuses the usual portrayal of quotidian scenery and urban panoramas, but continues to explore further intangible aspects of the relationship between the subject and his living environment. The relationship in this particular case is complicated, as we are observing motifs of architectural objects, marked by the wounds of history, invasive plants in dense ecosystems of flora, and wounds to the body being carefully healed. The slow montage of scenes gives the audience an almost intimate portrayal of places that appear quite rude at first glance. A special interest is shown in Latvia: decaying fortifications to the north of Liepaja (a naval port area that has survived from the times of Imperial Russia), and the radio telescope at Irbene, which recalls the Soviet era. The plot is not declarative. Factographic details lie peacefully in the paper leaflet of the project’s description, so it is quite probable that they may even go unnoticed.
This speechless visual story fades into the background of the expressive, expansive, declarative dramatic action of a concert performance. The meaning of this self-evident contrast is also quite ambiguous, to say the least. On one hand, the plasticity of imagery in one way or another corresponds to the formal elements of musical composition. The dynamics of the camera, the density of the frame, the textures of the objects shown, the mood of the landscapes, and the intensity of the light are not illustrative, but rather create an observational background for the eye to dive into mesmeric audiovisual senses. To be honest, when viewed like this, the projection as a part of a complex audiovisual structure, is not too exceptional; well, obviously with the exception of its aesthetic, stylistic and plastic qualities. On the other hand, by bearing in mind the context of a visual narrative and the given interpretation of a performance situation as a dramatic act, video undoubtedly stands as suggestive counterpoint. It does not offer an unambiguous understanding. However, we may actually find here a window on a voiceless wound behind the stigma, a fissure of the external. Making its way through the perishing frame of this wound, established in externality, the window shows and tells the mercy of relief, its healing tenderness. It also hides away from a direct, insensitive gaze, driven by blinding charm.
Structurally, the project Under the Skin recalls leafy blossoms, or a tree with several branches. Its components open up various aspects of the same experience, by divaricating sidewards. In recent years, Kristina Inčiūraitė’s artistic practice has leant towards such an identity, which unfolds by taking advantage of complex projects that are full of intertextual meaning. By characterising the manner of collaboration, it should be noted that the meaning is created not only by the artistic contribution of her partners, but also by the fact of their participation itself, as it is full of contextual references and related artistic gestures and even strategies. An artist knits a network of meaning between chosen partners, their artistic identities and their contextual backgrounds, site-specific situations, artistic language and parallels in the plot. It seems that this strategy opens up wider and wider horizons of aesthetic experience, and turns out to be really successful. On the other hand, despite the theatrical sight and its complexity, which gets more and more astonishingly spectacular, Kristina Inčiūraitė remains faithful to the subtle themes of her personal interest, and thus to a profoundly insightful artistic approach. The echo of Maja Ratkje’s voice in the ambience of the hushed silence of the choir enriches this alluring artistic landscape perfectly.