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Complex machineries of ethics and desire: in conversation with Melanie Jame Wolf
Monday, March 14, 2022 | Angel Callander

 

Melanie Jame Wolf, Understudies, 2021. Single channel 4K video, 21 minutes.

 

 

Melanie Jame Wolf is a Berlin-based artist from Naarm/Melbourne, whose practice uses moving image, textile, and sound to broadly analyze the complexities of performance as a discipline, and in everyday life. Wolf eloquently describes her concerns as being “the poetics and problematics of ghosts, class, pop, sensuality, gender, narratology, and the body as a political riddle.” In 2021 she released two new works that marked significant changes to her practice. Acts of Improbable Genius (2021) follows Pierrot the Clown and Wolf’s persona of Stand-up Ron performing the same monologue on the nature of comedy, culminating in the death of Wolf’s years-long character study of Ron. Understudies (2021) is Wolf’s first scripted and choreographed film, featuring seven actors performing fragments of Nina’s monologue from Anton Chekhov’s 1896 play, The Seagull. 

Understudies was produced during a residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, and premiered in the solo exhibition, Two Years Elapsed Between the Third and Fourth Act, from April 16th – May 24th, 2021. Shown as an installation with textile works from the film, the exhibition carries Wolf’s interest in dissecting techniques of performance and labour through the specific notion of the rehearsal. 

In this discussion, we focus on these two recent works and the relationships between the sublime and the ridiculous; acting and behaving; rehearsing and suffering; as well as the through line of residual attitudes from the 1990s about comedy and persona. We also touch on the influences of Lauren Berlant’s writing on affect and Mark Fisher’s concept of hauntology. Wolf articulates that a queer-feminist ethics of filmmaking means to attempt the absence of secret shame and suffering, wherein performers are taken care of and provided with a space for humiliation to be neutralized. 

Through her work, Melanie Jame Wolf takes great stock of exploring humanness and liveness, both in the sense of performance for the camera and being in the world. Through a queer-feminist lens, she unpacks some of the great themes in subjectivity that pervade art history, as well as real life. 

 

 

One of the core interests of my work is revealing and rendering visible the labour of performance, the specialized skill of performing. It's not just being an extrovert, it's a really tricky thing that people do in lots of contexts.

 

 

Your recent exhibition at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Two Years Elapsed Between the Third and Fourth Act, used your new film Understudies as the central piece. I’m very interested to know about the use of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull for the monologue excerpts that all of the actors are performing. My hazy understanding is that it’s considered one of the first modern theatre works. Could you tell me more about that choice? 

I don't think the fact that it's a work of modernity really informs the piece. For me, Nina's monologue in The Seagull is the diamond; it’s my favourite piece of text ever written for the stage. Not in terms of contemporary performance texts, but theatre theatreyou know, ipsum Chekhov, canonical theatre. It's my absolute, hands-down fave. When I first encountered it, it resonated with me so much because it encapsulates everything about what performance is in a wonderful, self-reflexive way. 

I also really like the way Chekhov writes for women, considering when he was writing. I like the characters that he produces, or offers for women to play, for representations of womanhood. These lines: “I never knew what to do with my hands,” “You cannot imagine what it is like to know you are acting badly.” I think it's delicious poetry, a really wonderful articulation of the core of what performance is—what good and bad performances are, the things you have to drop to be able to be a great performer, things that most people can't do. 

One of the core interests of my work is revealing and rendering visible the labour of performance, the specialized skill of performing. It's not just being an extrovert, it's a really tricky thing that people do in lots of contexts.

 

 


Melanie Jame Wolf, Understudies, 2021. Single channel 4K video, 21 minutes.

 

 

I really liked the way it's described that they're playing these fragments of the text, some doing them in their own mother tongues. You say that this “seriously playful repetition” renders it “both sublime and ridiculous.” How do you think of that relationship? 

It comes back to these questions of labour and what labour is. It’s labour as repetition, and rehearsal is always already a performance. I wanted to create a space for the performers to demonstrate their skill as actors, but also to create a very slippery moment where we're not sure whether it's a legitimate mistake or not when they’re asking for technical changes or breaks. So there is a slippery texture to the piece in that way. The repetition allowed for people to speak in different languages without subtitles, because you already know what they're saying if you possess the English language. That was a question in post-production, of whether to use subtitles; what does that privilege, what does it take away from the image? 

The meta-rehearsal stuck out to me right away, because you know that they've prepared all of these affectations. Some of them ask, “Line?” or, “Can we do that again?” There’s an element of the lack of preparation being pre-prepared, which I found very intriguing, particularly as a big reality TV fan. I've been thinking a lot about the 1990s, when the “society of the spectacle” really came into its own after the end of the Cold War—news, reality, everything became entertainment. Watching this, I couldn't help but think of the desire to act and to be a persona that reverberates through reality TV, and now through culture at large it would seem. It reminds me of the overarching turn of everything into a performance and into entertainment, especially one line I noted: “What is bad acting? I'm the actress, this is the rehearsal. I am behaving badly.” It highlights the self-conscious slippage between acting and behaving.

Absolutely. This wordplay through the repetition of that language, slipping from the sublime to the ridiculous, is an exquisite thing. I'm acting badly versus I'm behaving badly. The saturation of repetition explodes with meaning and possibilities for meaning, making visible the amazing theatrics of the everyday, but also the ridiculousness of it. I’m always trying to make those continuums happen, and I think it's the slipperiness.

It was also about a mode of production. I'm relatively new to filmmakingthis is the first time I made a piece that I considered a film rather than a video. I'm not sure what I mean by that distinction, but it somehow feels important, like a graduation, but that’s probably problematic [laughs]. I thought, “I'm making a film… what is a queer-feminist practice of filmmaking?” I was asking myself what that means for the ethics of bringing together these women from different marginalized backgrounds, with different identities, for a very short period of time? How can I create a situation where there's no suffering, where this text and this script has room to play so nothing can go wrong?

I had a moment a few days before shooting, wide awake at 3:00 AM, thinking how terrible it would be for the performers to be reciting this line—“You have no idea what it's like to be acting badly”—and for them to be really acting badly! [laughs] What if I wasn’t taking care of them by creating the potential for humiliation, in a sense? This was the ethics of how to produce a script that has so much repetition within it that it acts as a safeguard, so the stakes are not so high for everyone. 

 

 

...everyone has a rehearsal room of the mind. I think there are always these kinds of rehearsals going on in everyday life. I'm interested in pursuing that line from the actress through to the prepper, or the dreamer, or the person with a lot of social anxiety.

 

 

This rehearsing of the rehearsal beforehand, it also alludes to the fact that performing is hard, and being a person is hard. Preparing a rehearsal is to try and evade all of the stuttering, the stumbling, and the humanness that is seen as a burdennot even just to acting, but to being out in the world and trying to interact with people. This idea of humanness kept coming up for me in the film.

And the tenderness! The camera is a tender camera. It's not too soft, it's still working with edges, but it's tender. The meta-rehearsal is an ongoing question that I think I will continue exploring, and the idea of how we're always mentally preparing, like if you're going to have a confrontation, you're about to speak in a second language, or you want to ask for a refund. We rehearse for potential emergencies and for stress. Who am I, and what is my subjectivity, in a speculative emergency?

The condition of the anxious person.

Yes, exactly. And everyone has a rehearsal room of the mind. I think there are always these kinds of rehearsals going on in everyday life. I'm interested in pursuing that line from the actress through to the prepper, or the dreamer, or the person with a lot of social anxiety.

You mentioned wanting to create a space without suffering, I think that’s a compelling concept. There is also a bit of irony there since most Russian art is notorious for basically being a complex, long-winded investigation of suffering. 

Totally [laughs]. This question of not suffering, to me, is articulating this ethics and talking it through with a lot of people. In the early stages of preparing the film, a very good friend of mine asked me to very simply name the catchphrase of my ethics, and I said: “No suffering.” By this I mean no secret suffering, wanting to create a space where everyone was being taken care of, like a good party. It was a very careful space, which is the opposite of how actresses are treated in the professional theatre, in my experience.

Something else stuck out to me in this vein, where your artist statement says that performance, for you, is a strategy to analyze broader social and political currents, and that you understand performance as a survival strategy. I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on that.

I think of it in terms of how we perform our subjectivities by degrees. Most people are operating with gradients of intensity to their subjectivity; how much, or how little you are bringing of yourself. It also goes back to this concept of the meta-rehearsal, in a very literal way performance is a way to live out in the wilds of the world, through different personas that we try on. I'm really interested in the distinction between persona and character. There are ways of looking at, or understanding performance that are equally applicable to performance spaces, as in art spaces, into the everyday. I feel like I'm being a different person all the time depending on what's going on around me, and that's also about modulating affect when you're in a space. You’re big in some places, and invisible in others, consciously or not.

I also discovered that you are a Lauren Berlant fan. Has their work had an influence on yours?

I was revisiting material after their passing [in June 2021], and I was reading their amazing writings on comedy while working on Acts of Improbable Genius (2021). Berlant had a slower approach to the ideas of art-making, being, and learning in public. It's discursive, not in a discourse-as-commodity kind of way, but in terms of actual learning, taking risks, and thinking in public. Learning in public is making art. I think that Lauren Berlant demonstrated this really amazing analytical thinking in ways that were highly legible and prolific, and really generous. 

 

 


Melanie Jame Wolf, Acts of Improbable Genius, 2021. Photo by Jessica Maurer.

 

 

There's something that you wrote in your description of the film, that it is about “the complex machinery of desire.” That phrase popped out because it comes back in the film through something your characters say: “Comedy is a game of risk operating in a libidinal playing field, like desire.” I'd like to hear you expand on this relationship between comedy and desire. 

Someone who's funny is the hottest person in the world. Wit and humor are very attractive qualities, but in terms of Acts of Improbable Genius, it’s dealing specifically with the idea of the white male comedian from a very specific time. It questions who is permitted to be funny. While making that piece I was invited to write a short essay on comedy in the theatre for the 25th birthday of Sophiensaele in Berlin, where I premier most of my stage works. I ultimately wrote it as a listicle. One of the things I talked about was how myself and a good friend, who is a “bad-boy” European theatre star, were in a piece together. Afterwards, going for a drink, he said, “They [the audience] won't let you be funny.” We were as funny as each other, and delighted in that comedic play together on stage, but the audience would not have the generosity with me that they would with him. I thanked him for seeing that. We're in the same universe on stage, but audiences are this wild chorus of unwieldy affect—they're like weather, with hot and cold spots; intemperate zones. You can feel them literally shut down, because now the woman is being funny, not the theatre star that they all love. For him to really recognize that with me was great.

Writing that short essay opened up for me the way that I could make Acts of Improbable Genius, about how everybody can be funny but it doesn't make everybody desirable. You know when you get together with someone and they become funnier over time, because they feel safer in taking risks, because ultimately being humorous is about taking risks and feeling safe doing so. What's at stake in being funny, to risk being a bit surreal or dangerous, I think has historically produced a gendering of how comedy is received.

I jotted down something else from the work where you explain that being able to make other people laugh is powerful, persuasive, and addictive, which implies an ethics, but ethics are not very funny. 

Yeah, because so much of it comes back to the fact that as soon as you start to explain why something is funny, it stops being funny. If we want to talk about exactly what the ethics are, we want to start policing the boundaries. But I’m also saying that within the video as a play on and critique of the wave of old stand-up vanguard, who claim you can't say anything anymore because everyone gets offended. It’s essentially paranoia on the part of guys who feel this destabilization, that their entitlement to make jokes about everything and to punch down is being “threatened.” I’m not convinced how real that threat is. It's a complication to talk about ethics in its very dynamic.

That’s exactly where this through line of the 1990s came in for me again. The British scholar Jeremy Gilbert talked about his theory of “the long ’90s” on a Novara Media podcast, positing that the structures of that decade have continued on culturally, politically, and affectively. He talks very specifically about comedy, how in the ’90s that structure of feeling was ironic, and sincerity was naïve. The comedians of that time are some of the most outspoken people on Twitter to this day. He says that the clash of generations of the past few years is a battle between these older comedians and younger Left-wing people over naivety and ironythe naïve versus the knowing audience. Are young people naïve because they believe politics is going to change the world, or are ’90s comedians naïve because they don't understand that the world has changed and their experiences are not culturally dominant anymore?

Yes, there is definitely a Gen X/late-Millennial refusal to acknowledge that we are all getting older and nothing really stays the same. Also, there’s a naivety around the calcification of cynicism as a posture, where it's always already ironic, and that is such a cowardly trope and position. It becomes more of a malignant practice because there's no material proposal for the liberation of anyone. Who cares about liberation if you're getting your comedy specials? 

 

 



Melanie Jame Wolf, Acts of Improbable Genius, 2021. Photo by Jessica Maurer.

 

 

I liked the ideas of duration and outliving cultural usefulness being very prominent in your characters of Stand-up Ron and Pierrot the Clown in this work; you call them “the ghosts of humour past.”

They're definitely ghosts. They're dead, and as far as I'm concerned the things that they represent are dead, too—or need to be. The distinction between those two personas in the film is that Pierrot knows and has accepted that they're dead. Pierrot has been around for a long time, being misused as a revolutionary Everyman for a couple of centuries, so the shtick is old. Ron refuses to accept that he's dead because he has this very specific entitlement of this particular Boomer/early-Gen X vibe. He feels like he's immortal, so he's still performing for his life. Ron's disgusting, but I also think he's an amazing professional entertainer. I can't take that away from him. 

It was such a bizarre experience filming this piece, because Stand-up Ron is a persona that I've been working with for a number of years. Once I'd had a baby, and the pandemic hit, I was in a very intense isolation. Then we went and filmed Acts of Improbable Genius in an empty theatre, an old silent cinema in the former East Germany where Marlene Dietrich hung out in the 1920s. It's a very ghostly play, being performed in a ghostly place. Performing Ron this time, I'd never experienced this sense of being possessed by him before, even though I had been inhabiting this role and persona for so long already. It was a whole new level of becoming that was a bit scary, uncanny. I went home and cut the mullet off immediately, because that was Ron's hair. It couldn’t be on my body anymore. He couldn’t be hanging around.

That wasn't a wig? 

That was my hair! It's all there, it was all real. But it became Ron's hair. It's so weird to talk about this, I haven't quite figured out how to articulate what this is to really shapeshift in a way that was so surprising, but also very pleasurable.

Another reason I brought up Lauren Berlant is that I found an interview they did for TANK Magazine a couple years ago. There was something I read in there that resonated in relation to this work in particular. They say: “A shifting relation to the encounter within the social emerges when what constitutes an event changes from the melodramatic mode. The problem of distinguishing tragedy from comedy does too.”

Right, the slipperiness!

Exactly. It’s about this constant foregrounding and backgrounding, going in and out and around in circles.

Risk and danger. There is a volatility when shifting between really distinct modes, in which we understand what our performance should be within the social, and then suddenly it becomes full instability. If someone’s becoming is as reckless as Ron’s becoming, it's very unstable. I was a stripper for about ten years in Melbourne, and I spent so much time with so many men who were really performing their heterosexuality and masculinity in very specific ways. Ron is really a cipher fornot processing, it's not a traumathat embodied knowledge of the ways in which certain men perform themselves. Ron is a staging of that knowledge, which is also what makes his engine so dangerous or volatile.

I think about what happened with comedy in the 1990s, after the collapse of a geopolitical rival that was a competing, animating force for so long, which forced innovation in a lot of ways. When that disappeared, we were only left with turning inwards, and what came out of that was a lot of anxious and paranoid energy. Perhaps when you're talking about certain kinds of comedy, particularly in the way that ’90s comedy emerged, you're also talking about triumphs of narcissism.

Absolutely, and reckless triumphs of narcissism. So many people talk about how they go back to look at their favourite films and movies from that time, and within seconds you're stumbling over misogynistic, transphobic, racist language and performances. Twenty or thirty years ago, that regime of narcissism was a culturally dominant thing. When the big cultural and political bogeyman of the Cold War was gone, the snake started to eat its own tail.

Yes, that’s right. Another thing that informs Acts of Improbable Genius is Renate Lorenz’s notion of transtemporal drag. Could you talk about that as well?

When people talk about drag, especially when they ask me about Ron, I'm very wary in the post-RuPaul’s Drag Race world of the word “drag.” It's collected some baggage. That isn’t the kind of drag that I'm talking about, and it's not what I'm doing. I've found Lorenz's idea of transtemporal drag to be a great way of thinking around or other than that. Drag is an assemblage of references first and foremost, and these references can come from all different points in the radius of history. As you bring them into the assemblage, they collect affective and political baggage and implications. It’s like historical drag, but not a period drama. 

I like how it brings into play the idea that the really cool thing about drag is being a magpie and taking from different sources. That kind of wit and risk shows how all those different references can sometimes have clashing implications in terms of where they've come from historically. Reading Lorenz’s theory helped me to unpack what I was doing and to think through how to go about making Acts of Improbable Genius with Pierrot as another version of white male comedy.

 

 

I like the argument of “camp materialism,” that it’s necessary for camp to resist and explode the normative regimes of looking and being. Otherwise it's aspirational...

 

 

I did a bit of work at the beginning of 2020 that looked at camp. It occurred to me that one of the overarching cultural trends of the decade 2010 to 2020 was how camp was actually very dominant, but not consciously, and how it was understood evolved quite a lot over time. That tradition of drag that Drag Race started from is meant to be about uprooting the assumptions surrounding taste and class, but that really changed rather quickly.

There's an essay called “Camp Materialism” by Juliane Rebentisch that details how the important thing for camp to do is to explode, and to consciously critique, the normative regimes of the beautiful and the glamorous. I feel that at a certain point, because of its complex and very obvious enmeshment with the neoliberal machinery, Drag Race stopped being camp at a certain point. 

It’s produced from such a specific context, of the United States, which is ground zero of the demonic demise of capitalism. Now for the queens going on Drag Race, they need to have so much money just to be able to compete, which is completely antithetical to how I came up understanding drag, as a punk thing. I like the argument of “camp materialism,” that it’s necessary for camp to resist and explode the normative regimes of looking and being. Otherwise it's aspirational, which is not what it's supposed to be about at all.

With these two works, there's a real shift in my practice. I’ve come from theater and choreography, and then I started messing around with video. But these works are where I started to look at cinema and how video is made, rather than doing a very improvisational shoot where I amass a lot of cool images and make the film in the edit. This was storyboarded and scripted, I spent a lot of time with lights and rehearsals. It was a very different method of making with a different temporality, that signaled a real shift for my work.

It's been a big year somehow, I'm really tired. They both came out this year. It wasn't the pandemic that got to me, it was parenthood. It was the fact that I had a child and then I got the Bethanien residency, so I had a proper studio for the first time in my life. In terms of being a new parent and having a space to go to actually reclaim the sovereignty of my subjectivity was delightful. These works came out of that.

While reading through descriptions that you'd written about your work I encountered the word ‘hauntology’ quite a few times. I was wondering if that's coming from Mark Fisher? How do you think about that concept? 

I definitely arrived at hauntology through Mark Fisher, not through DerridaFisher led me to Derrida. I've been revising my take on Mark Fisher because I don't know that his work has aged very well, but I like the idea of the hauntological. I was looking at what it means for talking about aliveness through the lens and mediation of the glitch. Glitch feminism is much more interesting on this point, but the succinct thing that Fisher says about this ghostly vibe is that it is “the agency of the virtual.”1 I love anything that pins down in language the un-pin-downable. Berlant talks about affect constantly, but in very different ways. I like to find language that is tender enough in the way that it holds a recognition of what happens in etheric, affective, and virtual spaces.

I did always appreciate that Mark Fisher was good at explaining very complex things very simply, and finding words for things that you couldn't find words for yourself. He always seemed to me a good resource to give to other people to read for that reason. I think a lot about “the slow cancellation of the future”2 in regards to hauntology as well, and I love that phrase.

Totally. He also created a really interesting model for talking about pop-cultural artifacts at the time, and any champion of pop culture is cool with me. I just thinklong ’90s againthe cynicism really undermines him, as does his insistence on a materialism that is fairly blinkered to intersectionality, particularly in terms of queerness. That said, I felt very attracted to Fisher's work because of my own class background, as a white person in a British colony from a working-class family. There was a lot of very specific cultural articulation in his work that really resonated with me in that way—that class is very emotional, for better and for worse. I may be a Fisher skeptic these days, but I'm not a hauntology skeptic. 

So I am curious, do you have any favourite comedians?

I used to watch a lot of comedy on TV and go and see comedy shows with my parents, but no, I don't think I have one anymore. I don't really watch stand-up now, I'm more into memes. [laughs] Sometimes I cackle with laughter; there’s nothing like a great meme. There's also something in that move from stand-up culture and the single authorial genius, to the meme being a much different proposal in terms of authorship, distribution, and humour—how comedy is constructed and the literacies that it demands. Memes are my favorite comedian now!


1. Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life (Zero Books, 2014): p. 34. 

2. Ibid., p. 12.

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The above conversation was conducted by Toronto based writer and researcher, Angel Callander. Special thank you to Melanie Jame Wolf for her participation in bringing this piece to fruitition and for sharing generously throughout this conversation.