May 5th, 2018
FlucT in conversation with Camila Nichols
Performing collaboratively as FlucT, Monica Mirabile and Sigrid Lauren have violently intertwined-and-hoisted-and-groped-and-flipped-and-slammed each others' bodies in hyper-emotive public interventions for nearly a decade. While often alarming, FlucT's actions are, above all else, cathartic. Gesturing and convulsing as though puppeted by glitchy, ominous audio-clip-collages, the artists set their bodies in motion as a way of processing cultural information, urgently enacting the psychic abuses inflicted by media-reinforced systems of social control.
Earlier this month, I met up with Sigrid and Monica at Happyfun Hideaway in Bushwick to discuss their current show at SIGNAL, is it god or am i dog?, a translation of FlucT's live performance into multimedia installation. The exhibition is immersive—in the darkened gallery space you're circled by a dizzying, projected video of the performers dutifully careening into each other in sync with rattling soundscapes (which quickly channel-change between timely samples mined from pop culture, YouTube vlogs, and newscasts). Central to the show is a progression of three video sculptures that distort domestic architectural motifs: a human-sized dog house, a floating window next to an empty door frame, and a structure that doubles as a bed and a cage. Playing on loop, the videos affixed inside show FlucT wearing expressions that flicker between maniacal grins and pangs of fear as they crawl on all fours, seize, collapse, and clumsily pantomime sex acts in ripped nylon and silicone shapewear.
Camila: Could you describe the power dynamic at play in your new show, is it god, or am i dog? Who or what is God—and who's the dog—in this equation?
Monica: is it god or am i dog? is a game of perception. God can mean multiple different things, and what dog becomes in relation to God shifts depending on which way you decide to read it. It fluctuates back and forth.
God can be the overarching master-figure that has control over your life in a negative way, and that can make dog subordinate. Or, God can be viewed as the connective force that links all of us together in culture, physicality, and spirituality. Then, dog represents the animal, the instinctual, something that responds to information in a more simplistic or natural way.
In this work we use our bodies to process information in a way that is instinctual, but also more behavioral. We are behaving in a way that is expected of us—which is created by culture—and playing with the iconography of expectation within our behavior.
All of our work has to do with control and lack of control, how we perceive and interact with that in our daily lives, and how we see other people having or losing control. That's ever-present in this installation. The very first video work that you see is Doghouse, which forces the audience to get on all fours and crawl into the sculpture in order to see what's going on. When you're inside, you're observing us in a scenario onscreen that looks like we're acting out things we "must do." We look imprisoned, and we are: we never leave the frame. We're doing these things that almost seem like we're trying to communicate something to you, but it's very cryptic.
Then in Subjects, the second video, our subconscious behavior starts to show, and we glitch out a little. You start to see these gestures outside of normative or appropriate behavior. The video is very much all subconscious information. It's all dark matter. The way our bodies respond reveals this freakier underlying narrative. That's us out of control, whereas in Doghouse we are more in control.
Sigrid: But there is also a wavering back and forth between social layers within each narrative. There are moments of regaining power, and then being shut down by someone—Monica is taking power from me or I'm taking it from her.
Camila: I think that exchange between you two is significant. You interact and relate to one another in a way that moves between supportive, or nurturing, gestures and an implicit violence. How does your dynamic together function? Does the fact that you're both female influence the way you operate as a pair?
Sigrid: One thing that we play with is that we don't look the same, but we are two females—so sometimes we can be thought of as layers of one being.
Monica: Pandrogyny is something we've played with on a more conceptual level.
Sigrid: And the investigatory relationship to oneself, and how that completely relates to how you have relationships with other people.
Monica: The fact that we're both females is secondary to the information, we are processing our own experience—we're inevitably absorbing cultural information based on the fact that we are both females. How women are treated in society is obviously a historical and current problem, and something we critique in our work by destabilizing what it looks like to be female in this world and performing what actually happens, given the way that people treat each other. When we are in meditation and in studio we talk about those ways we're treated and we physically move through them. We process that information through talking about what we both experience, and I think that's where the idea that "we are one"—what Sigrid is talking about—comes in.
On another level, even though we show a lot of darkness—because our experience as women is often pretty dark—when we perform in front of an audience, I think what people actually see are two people supporting each other. It's because we're physically weight-bearing. That is the power of it.
Sigrid: Originally the name FlucT came from "fluctuation." Even though it gets painful and abusive, we come out of that together—it's about coming back up and continuing, not being held down or staying in.
We are who we are, and we can't help that we are two women. We don't think our suffering is the most fucked up form of suffering, but it is one example. This work includes some more general, mass-cultural audio clips from newscasts or YouTube videos because although we're showing our perception, our experience, every person is suffering in a different way—
Monica: —part of the reason why we use the soundtracks that we do, with the samples from different newscasts, videos, movies, and commercials, is because we all absorbing that same information.
Camila: It also feels important that the central video work, Subjects, is set in this generic domestic context that points to a heteronormative, nuclear family structure. What led to your decision to set that work in the home?
Sigrid: That's an ongoing theme.
Monica: And the domestic affects all of us. We maybe process it differently, but it affects all of us in different ways.
We're affected by the structure of the modern home which formed as an escape from World War I, when you started seeing appliances and comfy chairs…the house still represents an escape into something "more comfortable." But it's not true. Our bodies are still exposed and absorbing external information without being taught how to process it, and the family structure is often the worst place for people.
Sigrid: Things like commercials and Netflix are totally invasive in people's home lives. Most people are being brainwashed all the time. I think it's rare that people are in control of the values being instilled in their own households and what they're teaching and serving.
Monica: A key part of this whole show that we talked about is confusion.
At one point I had a revelation: "I am mad that I was raised to be confused." I'm not sure if that's just my personal experience, but I think it's also a larger cultural phenomenon… absorbing different media, watching Netflix, watching YouTube, seeing these things, listening to the radio… that's how you learn how to be a person in a lot of ways. The way women are represented—looking at 90's commercials and television—is like, damn, we're taught to be confused about what we're doing here. There are so many examples. I wish that I had been taught at a young age to not be confused. I wish I was encouraged to trust myself. At the same time, confusion is an incredible tool. It's powerful to be lost in this swirl or layering of information and to climb out and establish a sense of purpose.
Sigrid: If you're able to find a rope!
Camila: In what way are these feelings of confusion addressed through your choreography?
Monica: There is a foundation of vocabulary that we always return to—there's glitching, gushing, and gaping.
Camila: Could you elaborate on what those terms mean?
Monica: Of course. There's a certain cycle. Gaping is when you feel empty inside and you're lost.
Sigrid: You're seeking to fill yourself. Choreographically this looks exaggerated, and very literal, with the mouth open, trying to seek something to fill you. Or it's more desperate and more ferocious.
Monica: When you're gaping, you try and fill the void. In real life it looks like you start to maybe drink a lot, or get on Tinder and have a lot of sex. Or you read an advertisement and you're like, "Oh yeah, that is what I need, like, I do need whiter teeth. I do need bigger boobs."
And then gushing is when you've taken all that, and you've filled yourself up, and it's starting to spill out of you.
And that's where glitching comes in. It's when you start to get sick.
Camila: From the back-and-forth between the binging and purging?
Monica: From it being too much. Glitching is when it starts to become unhealthy, and your body starts to tell you that this isn't working.
Camila: I think most people could relate—we've all gotten so used to going through these motions that we accept them as a given and don't think much about their implications...and then we start having these "glitches," these physiological effects…
Sigrid: Yeah. The vocabulary for our dance is present in the everyday.
Monica: It's very pedestrian, but the way that we use it is exaggerated.
Sigrid: For example, there's a part of Subjects, the living room piece, where I'm shaking and it looks like an exorcism, and Monica's spinning the chair. In that case I'm glitching out. I'm going back and forth between, "It's okay! I know what I'm doing!" and, "No, actually you don't." It's not having totally lost control, but a nerve firing sort of thing.
Monica: And in that particular moment I'm the one making you sick. There's always the ever-present God, the one who has the control over you.
Camila: I wanted to return to the narrative soundtracks that you make. The sound element in this work really carries across the idea of there being an omnipresent, God-like entity, since it fills the room in a way that's overbearing, and its disorienting crossovers between different audio clips seem to dictate your motion—
Sigrid: Yeah, Subjects is much more of a traditional FlucT piece, similar to our live performances. It is a narrative; if you were to sit and watch the whole thing, there is an arc, it's telling a story and going, flipping, channel-changing if you will.
Camila: What goes into creating that, in terms of the process? How do you decide what samples to include and how to stitch them all together?
Sigrid: We start from the tops of our heads with what's been affecting us, or what's bothered us, usually from YouTube. A couple times I was like, "What was an inspiring movie that I kind of liked recently?" And I'm like, "You know, I really liked Contact with Jodie Foster…" Then after re-watching it I find, "this speaks to exactly these feelings for this exact moment."
Monica: You aren't aware when you've absorbed some idea or concept or cultural information. That's what happens when you listen to the radio, when you listen to the news, when you're watching Contact… sometimes it's positive and sometimes it's really bad. It becomes the way you treat people. The way we treat each other is always something we're talking about—
Sigrid: —what saying something means. How your words really do matter.
Monica: We create the soundtrack right before the work happens, so all of our pieces become a timestamp of what was going on right at that time. That's very much the case for this piece at SIGNAL, where this whole year has been characterized by a feeling of something being bigger than you. A cultural shift is happening where a lot of important things are coming to light and you don't always know what to do about them.
Sigrid: Yeah, "what can I even do about anything?"
Monica: is it god or am i dog? How much control do I actually have? How much effort do I put into something? How much do I let things happen? Do you have agency or don't you? That's what we're looking for when we're making the soundtrack. We're thinking about information we have absorbed, and also absorbing new information, to find that sound.
Camila: How did you approach your transition from live performance into video installation within a white-cube gallery? What challenges or opportunities came with this?
Monica: For a long time we felt like performance was the most appropriate way to say what we're saying. Being live—performance—is not isolated to art. Performance is something we all do. We all behave in certain ways because of the things that we're taught. So it's very accessible.
And art is predominantly a market, so when you can't easily sell something, such as performance, it's not given as much credence. So it's interesting to think about how you translate performance into that sort of world. We avoided it for a long time because we didn't want to engage with the art market.
And, we wanted the ephemerality, the live-ness, to stand on its own. The important aspects of our live performance—you feel the bodies, you feel the heat, you feel someone staring at you, the expression, the closeness, the fear of being hit—we started to talk about the translation of those elements.
We've been thinking about that translation as an appropriate next challenge while maintaining our same values, like: what is it about performance, about immersion? How do you get an audience to bend into space and do what we do in some ways? How do you get them to be attentive in a gallery, in the same way that people are attentive when they see a 15-minute performance? I think we successfully did it with this show, with the sculpture, the installation, and how you have to bend onto all fours to enter the space.
In addition to that, there is the revealing of the dynamism in materials. Like the slick coldness of a dance floor on your hands when you enter Doghouse. The reverberation of sound when the bass is shaking the walls. The coldness and dirt of the A-frame of the roof.
We've gone into this new challenge of performing FlucT in a different way, and we've learned some things. I feel proud and excited by it. This piece is more accessible than any work we've ever done. If you go and see a performance, you can hear it and maybe see bodies and motion if you're further back, but you really only experience it if you're in the front row. My first love will always be performance, but it's a really awesome thing that the translation is more accessible in this medium than it ever has been in some ways.
Sigrid: In the live performance my favorite part is always the freak-out, an exorcism where our bodies are slamming on the ground. There really isn't much of that in the piece. It's different. As a video, watching it on loop causes me to still find crevices where I consider new things I didn't before. We work in this chaos magic way, it becomes this completely layered thing where, together, ideas unfold—it's powerful watching it. In the video, there doesn't need to be a freak-out, because the whole thing is freaked out. It's this constant tension where you're ready to understand something inside yourself, or something inside the screen, a little bit more. It reminds me of a reverberating tightrope.
Monica: You can't easily walk away and be like, "that was about this." But like Sigrid says, there's a chaos magic in it. Processing the information is a way of defining it, so that a lot can be said about it after the fact.