Coup de Foudre, Part I of The Ascent of the Behemoth Trilogy.
Cassandra Troyan, my erstwhile roommate, collaborator, and friend, is a filmmaker, performance artist, and poet who has just released a chapbook with her brother, Cody Troyan, called Big Bill and the Lonely Nation. At the Wexner Center earlier this year Ron Green, an Associate Professor of Film Studies at OSU, dedicated his lecture on the emergence of the film loop to Cassandra, as well as to other OSU alumni Stacie Sells, Randy Hunter, Karl Baumann, Matthew Swift, and Nicolette Swift for pursuing the realization of experimental film and video at a university that doesn't even bother to offer a program for film production. But don't fret, Cassie has since transcended such dire circumstances and now finds herself a MFA candidate at the University of Chicago.
I interviewed her almost a year ago about the three-part film she made with Stacie Sells entitled The Ascent of the Behemoth Trilogy. That interview, partially updated to reflect time + reality, is after "the jump."
James Payne: The form your art usually takes outside of film is what one might call “performance” in that it involves the body. It seems like much of what is inside your films is body-based as well. In the two films that you’ve done with Stacie Sells, which are called…
Cassandra Troyan: The first is Part I called Coup de Foudre and Part II is Je M’en Fous. They are both part of what is called the Ascent of the Behemoth Trilogy.
JP: And what would they translate as?
CT: Coup de Foudre is a pun that means love at first sight but literally translated it means lightning strike or lightning blow. That meaning is also a play on coup de foutre, which can mean “fuck blow” or “cum shot.” Je M’en Fous can mean “I don’t give a damn” or “I don’t care.”
To what you were saying before, with Part I, a lot of it does consist of performance tableaux and they are present in Part II as well. They can be seen individually or they can be shown as a collective piece. Part III, which is pretty much done now, still uses performative elements but it changes perspective so that it is almost like how we perform in the real world. Part III looks at the world in a performative sense and how color, light, music, and movement can all be ways of projecting this alternative vision and language.
I’m interested in a new feminine discourse that I consider to be exemplified in the work of Pipilotti Rist. She is a feminist and her work is exploring those modes but not in a predictable way. Her work doesn’t follow the protocol of 1970s feminist film theory or that of filmmakers like Yvonne Rainer or Carolee Schneemann. She isn’t doing things as they should be, in terms of refusing to be an object of the gaze, and using her body in possibly desirable ways.
JP: What interests you about feminism or a feminist discourse?
CT: Well, I would consider it more of a feminine discourse, meaning that it is not just about feminism but what it means to be a woman and what the supposed inherent qualities are of that. Yet my particular vision is colored by thousands of different facets that expand beyond just about being a woman - all of my different relations, experiences, thoughts, and ideas play into this vision. Being a feminist is a part of that but there are many other things involved as well. There are larger constructs at work in society, such as the structure of power, which can either constrain or enable and possibly empower women through its recognition and use. My interest is in continuing this conversation and seeing the different ways it can be expanded by opening it up in a joyful, playful way.
JP: What do those terms, “feminist” and “feminine,” mean to you in particular?
CT: Feminism is important to me in the sense that we still live in a patriarchal society where women are not equal to men. For me, that is something I feel strongly about because a lot of my recognition of the world comes from that first initial difference. Everyone has their unique experiences and I can’t claim to know what it’s like to be a working-class Latina woman - I’m a white girl that grew up in the suburbs. But feminism is something that I feel strongly about and I can actually have some real sense of what I am saying through what I have experienced without diverging into essentialist claims; my subjectivity is strongly rooted in this idea.
JP: Are you interested in working inside that discourse because the rest of the critical social lenses aren’t as authentic for you to comment through? That you couldn’t say anything important about being poor or experiencing the brunt end of racism as much as you could say about sexism?
CT: Yes, I feel it is being more honest. For me, it is addressing feminism but doing it in a way where it is more than intricate theory - though I am interested in using critiques of spectatorship and The Gaze and breaking it down from that history so that it can explain an idea beyond itself. In terms of feminism, it is also about being honest while at the same time recognizing my white privilege and white guilt. My family’s socio-economic situation is different now but I did grow up in a white suburban middle-class family.
JP: The Gaze is complicated in the Ascent of the Behemoth since you - a female filmmaker - are using your body, constantly making the choice to film it, choosing to film it in ways that are sadistic, masochist, possibly sexual, and in a language that is not exactly clear in its intentions. Why does that approach interest you?
CT: That is what I am talking about in terms of a new feminine discourse and I think a lot of these questions are really relevant to feminism today and that they are the reason there is not a currently defined stage or wave. Even though I am a feminist with the ideas I might have about spectatorship and the objectification of women, I cannot ignore that I am still a sexual being and that I am a sexual being as a woman.
The figure that is used in Behemoth is not quite a character but rather a manifestation of the idea of feminine desire called the “Behemoth of Desire.” That figure is where I am usually dressed but naked from the waist down and wearing a jackalope plaque as a mask. This is all in reference to what you were saying about being sexualized but simultaneously that character is the manifestation of these ideas of being a woman and how I don’t want to be overly sexualized or objectified but I still want to be desired.
This is similar to someone like Pipilotti Rist as she uses the female body specifically because it is overly sexualized and that becomes her way of addressing it - by recognizing it. That is opposed to older generations of feminist filmmakers where the body just dropped out of their work or it became a very static body - like Carolee Schneemann’s work. She stopped using her body because she felt it became too commodified within society. I want to perform the body and enliven it through ideas of desire and action.
The "Behemoth of Desire" character.
JP: Why is it that the Behemoth of Desire is signified by a jackalope?
CT: The jackalope is a character that is entirely man-made. It does not exist in nature, meaning that it is on the fringe. It’s a sort of monster so it becomes grotesque in its inability to be defined. The character then uses this as a way to deal with the juxtaposition of being a woman and wanting to be desirable while not being objectified.
JP: Where did you find it?
CT: It’s my father’s.
Troyan at home with her father.
JP: Why did he have it?
CT: He’s strange. A lot of my work comes out of this relation to objects and found images and sounds which personify an idealistic American aesthetic, or what it means to be an American, which relates to my project “the American Anthology.” In other pieces with fencing masks, bull horns, the jackalope, and in the end of the Trilogy, Part III, my father himself is present as he plays Russian folk songs on his accordion.
JP: Would a viewer of Behemoth have to be educated within the discourses of feminist history to perceive that the use of your body has more meaning than “just” a half-naked woman wearing a jackalope mask?
CT: This is really important - I was just speaking to someone about this the other day. For example, Lady Gaga says she is a feminist and she is using her body in these weird ways as a cyborg-like creature, and through these bodily mutations it could be said that she is doing the same thing - how do you know if it is purposeful? I don’t think she knows what she’s doing and I don’t think it’s the history of a discourse that needs to be fully known but greater attention needs to be paid to the intention. I question some of Lady Gaga’s motives for suddenly associating herself with Feminism.
My work hinges both ways. For example, when I ask my collaborator, Stacie Sells, to push my head back down into the water again and again, it becomes the linchpin of the action that allows it to turn back and forth and be interpreted in different ways. At times it could appear to be sadomasochist but then it is me who is requesting the gesture. It is never that I am blatantly naked or that I am presenting myself, it is usually juxtaposed with a confusing, awkward, or tense situation that makes the readability indefinite. I am ok with interpretations of sexual fetishization: with the “Drowning Piece” people have mentioned autoerotic asphyxiation and I think that reference is there. I’m not against those references but it takes looking beyond that initial image to see the other place markers that are there. There is something else going on.
CT: That approach was used in Part II and now Part III focuses more on pleasure. The trilogy is by no means narrative but it moves through a chronology of ways in which we are socialized in our gender through the bombardment of images in society. Part II focuses on actions, which I am usually performing, but still plays against societal boundaries creating a sense of conflict. Part III, along with the other work I am doing now, does focus specifically on ways of looking at a pleasured female embodiment and that it doesn’t necessarily have to be painful self-infliction. Hannah Arendt talks about the idea that violence and power never go hand in hand and I think some of the performance work in the 1970s tried to be empowering by utilizing violence. Marina Abramović’s work, though violent, was more spiritual and about pain to the point of endurance that would push one into a new spiritual state, so I think pleasure was still involved in an interesting way.
JP: Do you view the distinct performance parts in Part II as documentation or as inherently part of the film? You said you show them alone on occasion but are they still parts of the film? When shown alone are they titled, “an excerpt from Ascent of the Behemoth” or is it addressed as performance documentation?
CT: I have shown the individual pieces at a gallery before and I considered it an excerpt from this larger piece. Those pieces were specifically done in mind for the video that we made but I was still concerned about the performative element and that it only is done one time. Something can be lost with repetition, even though I consider most acts experiments. They are still performance pieces but I view them in a filmic way as they relate to one another - the suffocating piece, the drowning piece, and the choking piece.
JP: Do you storyboard your films first or do you execute different ideas and then arrange them together in a cohesive way later?
CT: No, we don’t storyboard. Sometimes things just happen. There is usually something that we know will be an event, which is a pinnacle, and then there are different images, music, and colors which are pulled in by that event and it weaves itself together. But towards the end, especially for Part III, we had all these parts and it was about seeing how they fit together. It becomes about playing around and seeing what things work in relation to one another and how they speak to each other. That is where pleasant surprises may emerge.
JP: What is the ideal viewing situation you have in mind for the trilogy? If, let’s say, Mr. Film Festival, asked what you would like - considering what you’ve said about possibly separate tableaux, a possible modular arrangement, and the lack of narrative in the succession of the three.
CT: I’d like to see them together when it’s completed, especially since the whole trilogy is only about an hour. I think it’s watchable but with experimental film that can be challenging at times. When I watched Part II with Chris Stults, (Assistant Curator of Film and Video at the Wexner Center for the Arts) at the end he said, “Oh, that didn’t feel like 23 minutes,” where if you are watching experimental film that is bad it can feel endless, even torturous.
JP: Did you do any film before this?
CT: Artistically, it is my first film. Prior to this I learned how to edit on Avid and Premiere but that was in relation to telecommunications and journalism.
Troyan with Nicole Langille as VITALForms. At The Statehouse. 2009.
CT: The body of my work is performance but a large part of my practice is collaboration, which I consider to be a material itself, and the different discourses that arise out of that. Stacie and I have been working together for almost two years. Nicole Langille and I work together as VITALforms and we deal with ideas of love, desire, intimacy, and how those relate politically to the relation of bodies in public space. I also work with Red76 and Zefrey Throwell. I sometimes do actions by myself but I find it more interesting to see what work comes out of different collaborative relations and what aspects are similar and how variable interactions are with each person. And I recently started writing poetry again which led to releasing a collaborative chapbook with my brother, Cody Troyan.
JP: Inside your working relationship with Stacie Sells - what is it that she brings and what do you bring?
CT: When we first started it was very specific. I was studying film with Ron Green, an Associate Professor of Film Studies in the History of Art Department at OSU, and I wanted to start actually realizing experimental video work and he suggested talking to Stacie. From that point we started talking and we began to propose ideas we had and started working together. The first video, which, not that I hate it now, but it is extremely didactic, and heavily theoretical, and there is not as much of a synthesis between the aesthetic and theoretical as we each wanted. I was theoretical and Stacie’s vision was aesthetic and she also provided the technical skills.
But with Part II we had a blended process where we equally shared in the direction of the project and we knew where our strengths were. In Part III, most of my aesthetic ideas are motivated through motion, action, or songs, and Stacie is inspired by more abstract and color-induced visions, reminiscent of 1960s and 1970s experimental film, like Stan Brakhage or Paul Sharits.
We both do everything together but in the beginning we didn’t really know what we were doing.
JP: Where have you shown Behemoth and is it available to watch online or to purchase?
CT: We have screened Part I at the Athens International Film and Video Festival in Athens, Ohio and the Ingenuity Film Festival at the Video Salon in Cleveland, Ohio. An excerpt, Untitled (drowning), was shown at Gallery 138 in New York City.
JP: That strikes me as different from most of the filmmakers that you are influenced by. You have to go to university, or now, Ubu.com, to even see some of their work since so much of experimental film is criminally difficult to access.
CT: I hope that people use Vimeo, Blip.tv, and YouTube, and find ways to utilize these sites beyond social networking - as a means of displaying and sharing work. But I’m serious about being an artist so I guess I have to find some way to make money from this.
JP: Grants. Or you could just sell DVDs.
CT: Well, most people just sell the hard-drive and projectors. That becomes the way that galleries sell multi-channel video installations.
JP: But you don’t want to do that. You would likely have to take it offline.
CT: I know. I am more interested in selling DVDs for $5, something that is reasonable and affordable. It’s a problem for me when I see a video piece that is on sale for $25,000.
JP: No one will ever see it again.
JP: There is that difference. It can’t be easily reproduced on a postcard or put it into an art history book, or just a small…
CT: Video still?
JP: Well, not the same. I don’t think a video still really tells you much about someone’s work even if it is covered in every book on avant-garde film. If you haven’t seen the whole of a film it’s basically impossible to comment on it.
CT: Like Robert Beavers, who pretty much refused to show anywhere except this outdoor screening in Greece and people who are serious Beavers enthusiasts make these pilgrimages to go there. I think there is something amazing in that.
JP: But how would they have even known about his work if he had always done that?
CT: This situation is very specific to film and video, cinephiles are some of the most insanely obsessive collectors or followers, in the sense that they think viewing a work in its ideal or finest form of presentation is the only way to view it. But I don’t think of my work like that.
JP: Do you only use video?
CT: Just digital video, SD and HD.
JP: What is the reasoning behind restricting most of Behemoth to black and white?
CT: Part III is very much infused with color but the choice for the black and white is partly aesthetic but also relates to and creates the ambience of the film…
JP: Is it that signal, “This is an Art film, it’s in black and white, there are French inter-titles, you can hear Hitler speaking…”
CT: No, no, no. I mean, I am interested in the idea of playing with the lines of art film prototypes, or the stereotypes of the genre. I love Godard and thinking in those terms, like in the beginning of Part II when there is Russian music and a gauzy perception which pulls in and then almost becomes a flicker film that calls to mind an early filmic Romanticism yet disassembles it through the disintegration of the image. Part II is in color and it leads into Part III which deals with this grandiose voice that is constantly shifting. So it is this conflict between insane laughter, but then it drops out into silence, and then when it comes back it brings the color with it.
A flyer I made for the premiere of Behemoth at SAIC in Chicago, Illinois.
JP: What are your inspirations? Or how did you get interested in video?
CT: Yeah, that great book. Those filmmakers inspired me to begin creating but before that I had been a pretty heavy filmgoer and film lover, especially in the last five or six years. I mean, of course the French New Wave, early silent films by D.W. Griffith, F.W. Murnau, G. W. Pabst, Carl Dreyer, Fritz Lang, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Yasujiro Ozu, Erich von Stroheim, Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, etc. I have always admired the ambience of those films, the great contrast in the images, the extreme drama and sense of urgency. German Expressionism, Russian cinema, everything within contemporary Eastern European cinema. I love the dreary soberness created in the atmosphere in Bela Tarr, Andrzej Wajda, Jiri Menzel, Vera Chytilova, Milos Forman, Krzystof Kieslowski, Jan Svankmajer, Dusan Makavejev, but within all of the believable and unbelievable worlds created by these directors, there is usually a prevailing sense of play and witticism that escapes from the bleak, all except Tarr, for him there is no escape.
JP: What role does sound play in your films? What are you thinking about in terms of it and how is it being realized?
CT: In Part I the sound usually matched the cacophony of the images without directly relating to them, making the viewer think instead of the role of the images we are submersed in on a day-to-day basis. Much of the audio was from television, movies, literature - references to pop culture. But now, music is really important. I don’t know what it is or what it means exactly but I think that is what is amazing about the use of music. Intuitively I might feel that there is a relative purpose, whether it is personal, or possibly even nostalgic. Especially in Part II with the use of “Moon River.”
The juxtaposition of me appearing as the “Behemoth of Desire” character in a canoe and slowly paddling into the scene and exiting the screen while the song is playing enters into the narrative that the song suggests. But the fact that I am going off into the sunset and then it cuts out and then enters in again at the end when it layers over itself again and again - it destroys this expected beauty through the destruction of the voice and the climax of the song deteriorates as it drops out.
JP: And you used the Hitler voiceover to invoke what exactly, what were you trying to accomplish in Part I with that selection of voice?
CT: I know it’s an extremely loaded reference and I wasn’t trying to use it as a low blow, or an easy target, because it’s almost too easy. I wanted to use it in an archaeological or historical sense, that it is this artifact from the past, which personifies human suffering and struggle. It was not so much specifically about Hitler, but rather, an iconic male voice of power, but it is extremely difficult for the viewer as you can’t or shouldn’t detach him from his violent context - it’s not possible.
JP: It was very blunt as you had all these other messages going on that culminate with the image of the lava and the burning of Joan of Arc and then suddenly you hear Hitler’s voice and you go, “whoa.” It is strong. I can understand why you would pick for that effect, but I wasn’t sure if that was what you were going for.
CT: What do you mean by that?
JP: Were you drawing a straight parallel or was it more of an atmospheric allusion linking it to the idea of male repression or was it neither of those?
CT: The idea of male repression is definitely linked but I’m not trying to distinctly say it’s just about Hitler. There is Hitler’s voice but there are also other cultural references; there is a line from a James Bond movie where he says, “the job is done, the bitch is dead.” Obviously, I was specifically using Hitler, but it can go both ways. Some people think it’s a cheap shot and others have been offended.
Recent collage by Troyan for a mail-art show at Skylab gallery.
JP: Do you view your work through the lens of activism? Does it have an activist component to it, in terms of enlightening someone towards some goal? Or are you just “investigating?”
CT: I wouldn’t say activism so much as I would say that it is political. Most of my work is political but I don’t necessarily know how much my work is propelling others to act. I am very much making statements, that to even watch this video initiates a conversation beyond itself by re-presenting everyday ideas and images in a less obvious manner. I hope that through my investigations I am informing people and making a statement and that it’s not just completely obvious and inconsequential. I want people to realize the power of these images and the ways that we use them and how we are affected by them and how we can be more conscious of the ways they are used against us or persuade us.
JP: If making statements is one of your goals, wouldn’t it help the comprehensibility of those statements if your films weren’t in such an aesthetically radical vein? It seems that only a certain subset of people would actually be interested in watching it.
CT: I think the way in which they are created helps, even though they are not narrative, they all move pretty rapidly, and have stimulating variety. I have shown these to people who have no background in experimental video or film, and they actually quite like them. Maybe they don’t see everything that I see but that is alright with me. There are multiple levels of understanding, even if you only find it intriguing on an aesthetic level, there are still a lot of political elements even in the aesthetic portion. That is also my interest for making it readily available by putting it on the internet and making it accessible to more than just the extremely classified experimental genre of filmmaking. I show these to my Grandmother and she likes them and understands them.
JP: What do you view the end goal of feminist thought to be?
CT: The point and conflict in the structure of current feminist thought comes from the fact that there is no single unifying goal, we don’t have suffrage or basic reproductive rights to fight for. I think feminism is much more of an abstract construct now since it isn’t specifically goal-oriented, which makes it more confusing. Now, for me, it’s about initiating a new feminine discourse and the different ways that the body can be articulated through this performing of the pleasured female body. There needs to be more representations of this embodiment, showing the body in the way that it doesn’t have to be in pain, or making it the alien, distant object. One of the people who I think is succeeding and doing this best is Pipilotti Rist.
JP: So to clarify, for you it’s about the idea of regaining the body as a site of pleasure and not regarding it as something that’s alien?
CT: It’s also about looking at desire and how it can be a part of the body. There is a tendency to examine the body intellectually until it is theorized to death but in the end we still have to face that we have bodies.
JP: Are you viewing feminism strictly from personal interactions or through a political context or a media-viewing, spectatorship perspective? Which “level” of feminism are you referring to? I feel you are not talking about distinct political goals but of an idea of being able to get to a point where you can reclaim how you view and are viewed - or is it that this personal viewing is a larger political metaphor?
CT: It is very much a personal is political idea but it is cultural politics as well. I really love and admire the work of Judith Butler but her texts almost stray away from the physical body at times through the terse language of academia. I think there needs to be something of the sensual, like in the work of theorists Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous. I want to articulate the problems of the body through the body, with video. Much of my thought is based in a theoretical discourse but I am interested in the different possibilities that the body can enunciate better than the written word.
JP: So you are not speaking of feminism in the sense that we need to pass such and such legislation, which relates more to the first and second generation of feminists.
CT: Right, I would say that I am invested in the instance of change, where I think it can exist beyond legislative means - the other places where it is more likely to occur. Most of the problem is that women’s bodies have been dictated to us by so many other people and organizations for so long that we haven’t had a chance to speak for ourselves.
People, especially pop-culture icons, then choose to perform certain ideas through the body, by coming forward and saying that they are feminists or particularly strong women, but they are saying it with their bodies in really sexualized ways. To me, that becomes concerning in that we are now in this weird limbo where the word “feminist” doesn’t mean anything and many of the women who I know who are feminists are too afraid or confused to say so and don’t know - are we third wave, are we fourth wave, what’s going to happen? Do we need to completely drop out and begin again? Some of these media figures seem to be strange scraps of an empowered moment. Now all we have is, “yeah, look at me, I’m so empowered with my razorblade sunglasses.” Bizarre fetishism is not an answer to the question and who is it that they are performing for anyway?
JP: I wonder how much of that confusion comes from the cloistering of political thought into hyper-specialized departments, like Women’s Studies or Peace studies. And perhaps the way to differentiate yourself in that environment is to make experimental films or other esoterica for people who “already know” – like maybe the isolation is not as productive as one may think. Perhaps it would be good to have an anarchist in Fisher Hall. Or at least there needs to be some non-specialized articulation of feminism in the public sphere that isn’t so amorphous as to include everything or so specialized as to be indecipherable so people in the mainstream media can’t pass the “Lady Gaga is a feminist, she wears weird clothes, she must be empowered.”
CT: I mean, that is what she said about her razorblade sunglasses, she said they made her feel strong and sexy and empowered. Or another pop culture figure like Megan Fox, who also claims to be a feminist by claiming that she is a bitch and she knows it, which is strangely transforming into this embracing of…
JP: Girl Power.
CT: Yeah, exactly! This empowering through the act of “girling.” This Spice Girls resurgence of female identity is coming back in a frightening way, since it is the essentially the same. It’s only a façade.
JP: You were a History of Art student?
CT: Yes and Film Studies minor.
JP: You have always lived in Columbus? Grew up in Gahanna?
CT: Yep. Born and raised. Except for living in Paris, France and Berlin, Germany for a while.
JP: Are you going to continue doing film as you leave for Chicago and Stacie stays?
JP: Are you going to work without a partner?
CT: I do other projects by myself. I just recently traveled to Scandinavia for the summer and did a lot of filming there. I’m working on a piece from footage taken in Sweden. I am also collaborating with Ola Stahl who is also a member of Red76, and we are doing this multi-disciplinary project with several people. Ola is a writer and sound artist, Kajsa Thelin is an archivist, and Jesse Kauppila Boardman is a printmaker, and I’m doing the video portion. Each of us is enlivening the written and translated text of Ola’s great uncle who was a journeyman in Sweden and the Pacific Northwest in the early 20th century. The journal is being used as an experimental template for utilizing the poverty of this uneducated man’s language in an abstract way, through multiple translations.
A recent video by Troyan.
JP: And you have a blog?
JP: What is it about?
CT: My blog is a reflection of my practice, which is largely collaborative, and highlights that and links to work that I did last Fall at CCAD as I was the Bureau for Open Culture Correspondent for the show Descent to Revolution. There were five artist groups who were in residency, from Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Mexico, as well as Red76 who is pretty international. I performed a text for Learning Site, workshops and collectives, such as MFK, the Malmoe Free University for Women, which was held at 16beaver in NYC.