Earlier this year in London, I spoke to Berlin-based artist Liz Rosenfeld about her film practice, our ecological future, and the place of "untrained bodies" in contemporary dance. Her latest piece If you Ask Me What I Want, I'll Tell you. I Want Everything. premiers at Berlin's Sophiensaele this November 21st.
Lydia Brawner: You're based in Berlin, but we're in London at the moment; what are you doing here?
Liz Rosenfeld: I am the Goethe Institute artist-in-residence at LUX Moving Image, which is the largest distributor and archive of artist-made films in Europe.
Over the past two and a half years, I've been working on a body of research exploring the themes of what will be my first feature film, FOXES, a speculative-fiction narrative about a teenage girl coming out as queer in the wake of an energy crisis. This creative research has taken the form of smaller pieces in different mediums such as film, video, performance, dance, collage works, interviews and drawings all exploring questions of climate change and desire. I’m particularly focused on questions regarding various forms of sustainability, and ideas connected to survival. I've spent the last few years interviewing climate-change activists, scientists, and philosophers about their work, and also their perspectives and fears of “the burn out” in regards to the work they do: what it feels like to unpack the realities they face and, in many cases, are asked to solve, and how they emotionally deal with this, knowing what the world is facing in terms of its ecological future. Here in London, I am making a film called FUCK TREE, a short experimental portrait of a historical cruising spot in Hampstead Heath. The tree grows along the ground in a specific way, and as a result has been occupied for decades as a site for queer sex. I was interested in this as an ecological site of queer life, a tree that holds space for queer bodies, and exists as a site for queer life after queer death. This film is the first part of a trilogy, the second installment was a tattoo of the tree, which I have on my leg. The third will be a dance work… a trio between me, the tree and a third person, a performer, who will encounter the tree with me for the first time.
Your primary orientation is film, but while you're here in London you're doing parallel research for a dance performance this November. Could you speak to the progression that you’ve had from filmmaker to dancer?
I've always been a performer—my work starts and ends with performance regardless of the medium. As a filmmaker I started to intersect with the dance world in Berlin—many of the contemporary dancers I know strive for an ideologically wider performance practice, so there is a clear move toward being more interdisciplinary. I was embraced in contemporary dance practice as a videomaker, performer, and in many cases as an “untrained body,” whatever that means—I hate that terminology, I think everybody can be a dancing body—and as a queer body.
What do you mean?
I have a hard time connecting with the dominant body image that dance supports. When I see a show of mostly white, skinny, androgynous bodies, I feel like I literally stop seeing them, because I'm so uninterested (laughs). I often struggle to see production, or usefulness, when everybody looks the same. In the past I’ve been invited to perform in shows by directors who I didn't really know, and I realized it was in part because they wanted me to perform, but also because they wanted the visual of a fat, queer, tattooed body on stage. I just don't want to put myself through that.
I can only speak to the experience of being a larger body in performance, but I feel hypersensitive to often being the one “representative” body… it's weird, and of course I know that people are going to be looking at me in whatever way they are looking at me. Tokenization is inevitable, you can't get away from it. It’s always something: “Come see this amazing performer who just happens to be disabled,” “Come see this fat person,” “Come see this work about race.” I'm not saying that this is bad, but I do wonder how to best work with the lenses that we are all born into. But people can't not look, which is why I often address it from the beginning of performative processes, to get over it and get on with it.
In my new solo performance, I do a duet with my stomach, and at first it was very hard for me to confront my body and in many way detach and give the fat of my stomach agency. I struggled with the relationship between my opposing roles of director and performer—I find myself in duality between pushing my director-self and pushing my performer-self. I wonder if I’m pushing the boundaries of my own consent.
You premier quite soon, yes?
Premiering at Sophiensaele in Berlin on November 21st. It’s called, If you Ask Me What I Want, I'll Tell you. I Want Everything. It’s a movement-based piece looking at queer desire in the face of climate change. One of my methods for this piece has been inviting people who I have various intimate relationships with into the studio for exchanges. There is also a sci-fi element behind this idea, in that I’m offering myself as a body that is storing future movement for them, for us... in a sense, as an alternative sustainable energy source.
I'm exploring questions regarding what comes after we've destroyed nature, what comes after we've destroyed our resources and we're just left with our own physical bodies, flesh, as houses, as vessels, as energy sources. I was thinking about what motivates me, and that’s intimacy and relationships between people, and this is an interesting way to create a choreography through these intimate relationships that I have…how they relate to my body, and how I relate to their bodies.
I'm interested in how queerness functions in your practice. What is that for you? Is that even a useful rubric?
For me it's about methodology: queerness, in every sense, is about methodology, labor, and living, it's not about an aesthetic. It’s how I've always worked, and I bring that with me into this piece as well. I’ll never be able to make a truly solo work because I rely so much on community and collaboration...political concepts of power and multiplicity—camaraderie actually. This work is about the way in which it is made. Like everything that I make, the labor that goes into that, the emotional labor between people. Even if I'm performing a work by myself, I'm not actually performing it by myself, because I've collected all of these experiences and energies and am crossing various physical thresholds in the performance with these movements and exchanges from people that I've collected in my body.
It speaks also to how queer history unfolds and works. It's not something that’s recorded; it's about perspective, and how these stories are passed on. My work is about a constant state of contact—that's really at the heart of what I do.
I try not to worry about it too much. If you are behind what you're doing and you're enjoying it, I don't care if it’s legible as dance or not. It's coming from a place of love for dance, and what I love about dance. I never would have seen myself in the dance world—I never saw that coming, ever really. What first fascinated me about dance was how all these people could be in this extreme physicality together, and still stay so neutral. I also find this a bit dangerous as well, as from my experience, the dominant European contemporary dance culture often moves away from dealing with questions regarding politicization of bodies.
What do you mean?
I always ask, "How are bodies useful in dance and performance?" and I'm still trying to figure that out. I don't have anything against virtuosity; I enjoy it immensely. I admire people who devote their lives to being good at one thing. It’s a kind of discipline that I will never have. I'm not saying that you need to train to identify as a dancer, but this creative identification holds so much tension and expectation.
I don't feel the pressure to be anything other than who I am. Is it scary? Yeah, but that's why I'm doing it, I want to experience physicality that I haven't before. It's research and an experiment too. It's a revelation to see what your body can do and to push yourself to consider the privilege and responsibility of what it means to take up space in performance.
Liz Rosenfeld is a Berlin based artist utilizing disciplines of film, video and live performance, to convey a sense of past and future histories.
Lydia Brawner is currently the Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow at Performa.