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“I Think of My Work as Functioning Like a Virus in the Sense That It Gets Inside Your System”: Michelle Handelman on Her New Installation, DELIRIUM PART ONE: DEATH (The Breakdown)

DELIRIUM PART ONE: DEATH (The Breakdown). (Photo: Bridget Casey)

“Make space to think about that which has died,” begins Lydia Lunch at the start of DELIRIUM PART ONE: DEATH (The Breakdown), a new multi-media installation by filmmaker and artist Michelle Handelman up through January 20 at New York’s signs and symbols gallery. On three projections spanning the viewer’s peripheral vision are performances by Lunch as well as the choreographic duo FlucT and dancers; the score, by Jack Dangers and Pharmakon, blends electronic drones, pulses and rhythmic stabs with breath and guttural sounds — “the cacophony of grief,” says Lunch. Together, the work is both a departure for Handelman and the ambitious start of a new cycle. Despite the presence of Lunch’s voiceover, which begins the piece and returns only briefly at the end, the piece is less tied to text than her previous Hustlers & Empire, bypassing the dialogic as it isolates the viewer within the electric void of its funereal space. Yet, as always with Handelman’s work, there exists a sharp theoretical intent behind its sensory attack. The work, she writes, “envisages altered states of consciousness as means of resisting capitalist ideals of production, transfiguring the body and interrogating desire through a visceral, cinematic framework that refuses the production of meaning.”

Handelman has appeared in the pages of Filmmaker several times over the years, discussing her feature documentary BloodSisters and in a 2018 essay describing the progression of her work from the film to art worlds. We sat together in the signs and symbols gallery space on Houston Street to watch the new installation and then discuss its origination, Handelman’s collaboration with Lunch, the role of philosophy in her work and, finally, her plans for its next three chapters.

Filmmaker: I’d like to start with that Roland Barthes quote from your program notes: ”The voice loses its origin. The author enters into his own death. Writing begins.” Why did you choose this quote, and does it reference your creative process, the experience you hope the viewer has or both?

Handelman: It’s really funny you bring that up because this morning I was thinking about the other Roland Barthes quote that was really meaningful to me in making this piece, which we took out of the press release because I was loading it with too many quotes. The other quote is: “A light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve.” That quote was really significant to me as so much of this piece is about the agency of light. I contacted my friend, the filmmaker and translator Keith Sanborn, who is my go-to concerning all things French, and asked him, “How do you interpret this quote?” We both came to this conclusion that Barthes was talking about the relationship between light and power, and that the power that light has can obliterate all linear, logical thought and put you in this state of unending emotion that just keeps giving and growing. There’s no start to it, there’s no end to it. That quote is really significant to me for this piece because I’m using light as a communicator and an agitator. Obviously light is the source of all cinema, but in this case, it is also an actor and a character in and of itself. And it’s not very benevolent.

Filmmaker: So light reveals and illuminates but also blinds and assaults.

Handelman: Exactly. I’ve edited the light to be very assaultive on the viewer because I’m trying to create an experience of delirium, an actual visceral experience of getting outside one’s mind and solely inhabiting one’s body— letting the light move your body in different ways.

Filmmaker: And what about the Barthes quote on the press release?

Handelman: “The voice loses its origin. The author enters into his own death. Writing begins.” That quote was significant personally, as I was thinking about the way art demands the artist step aside and let the work reveal what it wants to be, and it was also an inspiration in thinking about Lydia, and how I was positioning Lydia in the piece. Lydia, of course, is known as an iconic No-Wave musician, but I think her greatest power is as a spoken word artist, and that is where Lydia and I really connected in terms of our lives — with literature and poetry being our life force in some way. But for this piece, I wanted to somehow erase her voice yet have its power still there. And so that was why this quote became important. If you lose the voice, both physically and philosophically, and then the writer dies, you get rid of your ego in some way, that is when writing begins. That is when the art reveals itself.

And so what remains for me in this piece is the power of the breath. I knew early on that I wanted to use a lot of body sounds, breathing, grunts. I didn’t want to make something that looked like a music video with Lydia, or have it be similar to other works of Lydia doing a spoken word performance. So that was a huge challenge. How do you work with someone who is a known entity, and particularly someone who has such a large persona, and shift it from its center? How do you keep yet erase the iconic?

Filmmaker: How did the form of the work change or develop through your collaboration with Lydia? Did the form change quite a bit, or does it represent your conception from the beginning?

Handelman: This visceral, multichannel, disembodied form was something I envisioned since I started ruminating on this project in 2017. But at the beginning, I didn’t imagine Lydia to be part of the equation. When I got funding through Creative Capital in 2019, that was when I actually started work on it. At that point in time, it was just an idea, a paragraph, a couple of sentences. I knew I wanted to make something that was different from what I’ve been making in terms of dialogue and texts. I wanted to get rid of all of that. I wanted to create a piece that was all sound and light and bodies communicating in some way. From the beginning, I knew I was going to work with dancers, and I knew I was going to work with aggressive light and sound, and then fuck with it in post-production. I had divided it into four different sections: Euphoria, Sleep, Death, and Control. But when the pandemic hit I put the project to the side. I came back to it in 2022 after dealing with a lot of loss and death, and I realized that the Death section needed to be the first one to attack. I mean, I didn’t have a choice. In a way, working on this death section saved my life. But I was still having a hard time finding an entry point.

I had known Lydia for decades, but we really only became friends over the past few years. She had told me that she loved my work, and wanted to be in one of my projects, so that was always in the back of my head. And then it just hit me, maybe this is the project I should work with Lydia on. When I asked her to be in the project, she said yes right away. And that was my inspiration! She gave me a bunch of her texts and music, but I knew I didn’t want to use anything that was previously recorded. We started to exchange texts. I said, “Look, I’m probably gonna do a lot of repetitive stuff with your breath, I may even break down syllables. I might not have you say anything but just breathe and perform these gestures and interact with different types of materials.” And she said, “Great, I get it.” There was no other discussion with her about it.

One thing that did change during the pandemic, and when I decided to work with Lydia, was that I started to write again, which was something I used to do a lot more of. So while originally I didn’t want have any voiceover, or spoken word of any kind, when I came back to making the project, I knew it was really important to me to have spoken words in the piece. There was something I needed to say that needed to be said through words, so I wrote the monologue for Lydia. And then as I was editing that together, I realized that seeing her deliver this monologue was too conventional. I had to erase her face, her body, her bodily presence from her reading of the material, and that this disembodied voice would carry as much power as her bodily sounds carry later on in the piece when she’s heaving and breathing.

It was a real challenge to figure out how I was going to stay true to my original idea of having this visceral work that was just about breath, and shattering bodies and assaulting light, and then incorporate this spoken word. So I decided I would present it as a prologue at the beginning with images of light fog. So the prologue sets the stage, the political and personal grounding, and then when the prologue ends, the performance begins.

Filmmaker: At what point did the dance group FlucT enter the project, and how did you envision the sort of dialogue that occurs between them and Lydia?

Handelman: As I previously mentioned, I knew I wanted to work with dancers from the beginning and my dream was to work with FlucT as I was such a fan of their work. But I didn’t know them personally, and it wasn’t clear if they were still working together, because at this point Monica Mirabile and Sigrid Lauren, who are FlucT, had gone their separate ways, with each doing their own choreographic projects. It’s interesting because usually I know all the people I want to work with, and it just comes together at once. But this project came piece by piece. It was fall of 2022 when Lydia signed on. She was the first piece of the puzzle. And then I had to find my way to FlucT by asking friends if anyone knew them.  We shot with Lydia in April, 2023, and a few weeks before that, I finally got in touch with FlucT. They came to my studio the week before we shot Lydia, and then they were on board. I gave them tons of notes, outlines for all the different sections, lists of gestures and sounds. They choreographed hours of material that will be used in the later iterations of this piece. Their work is amazing, however you’ll only see a portion of it in this piece on death with Lydia.

How did I know they would work together? I didn’t! I just had this idea of having Lydia on her own screen, while surrounded by multiple screens of dancers. Lydia’s strength is like an anvil, an anchor — it’s really heavy and it doesn’t move a lot— the power emanates from her. I wanted dancers who would move in contrast to Lydia, frenetic and unruly, vibrating on another level — not necessarily illustrating but embodying what had been said in the prologue. How do you embody grief? How do you embody forms of systemic oppression? How do you embody this intense control that society puts upon you? Or this lack of control that one feels when dealing with great loss, or feeling like one has no agency in the world. There were all these states of being that I wanted the dancers to inhabit, and I was just hoping it would all work together! (laughs)

Filmmaker: How do you collaborate with your DP, Ed David?

Handelman: Ed, my cinematographer, is incredible, and he’s changed my work so much. We’ve been working together since 2007 when we shot Dorian, A Cinematic Perfume. We have an unspoken shorthand and understanding for one another, since we’ve worked together for such a long time. Ed knows how to transform my vision, to find the light, find the angles, even better than I had imagined. Ed is the only one on set who is absolutely irreplaceable. He has this graceful way, not only with camera movement, but in the way he lights. I barely had any storyboards for this piece. Normally I have storyboards for every scene, but the choreography came to gather in a very compressed amount of space and there was no time to plan everything. I saw only one rehearsal with the dancers, and Ed wasn’t even there for that. Normally, we would watch the dance rehearsals together, make notations on how lighting, camera movements — you know, the usual stuff, but we didn’t have that for this piece. I said to Ed, “We’re going to have to wing it,” and he responded, “Yeah! Let’s do it!” He’s up for anything and is a total gear geek.

But how do I work with Ed? The running joke on set is, “When Michelle says cut, don’t turn off the camera! Shoot everything.” Because, you now, those small, interstitial moments when someone breaks out of character can be so beautiful and so revealing.

Filmmaker: I’m always fascinated by how you marry theory and big ideas within work that is very experiential and visceral and at times is resistant to a viewer’s attempt to codify meaning.

Handelman: That’s really important to me, knowing that viewers can enter the work without knowing any of the references. The research is there for me, as a map, but the viewer gets to find their own way through the labyrinth. They don’t need my map. I’m trying to create a cinematic experience which forces the viewer to make their own meaning because, you know, that’s the challenge of living. It’s really important to me that someone can come in and sit with one of my works, have no clue about any of my sources, yet can find themselves resonating with what they see and hear. I think of my work as functioning like a virus in the sense that it gets inside your system, sort of lodges itself in your bloodstream and becomes a part of you. That’s the ultimate goal. Everything is a strategy, a tool in service of this idea. In particular, I use of low frequency sound and flickering light to get deep inside the viewer and and hopefully push them into a destabilizing state where they have to struggle to find their own center within the piece.

Filmmaker: At what point in the process do you experience that meaning-finding process yourself? Is it while making the piece, or after, perhaps, that you understand why you wanted to make this sort of expression at this moment in your life?

Handelman: Well, I would say both. That process that we’re talking about —being unstable, finding your own ground, trying to make meaning, is something I’m always aware of while making a piece. Because I’m constantly questioning my role as a culture maker, and trying to understand both the need to express myself, and what needs to be expressed. For this project I had a feeling I wanted to present, but it was simply a feeling, something very intangible and ever-shifting, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to manifest that feeling through images and sound. In fact, during the pandemic I started to think more about getting rid of images, how we as a culture already had a glut of images that seemed meaningless, and so I started to think more about expressing myself just through sound and light. But as anyone who’s seen my work knows, I’m an image whore, I’m all about image overload. That’s why I work with multiple screens because one screen is never enough! But for someone like me to give up the image is like a junkie trying to kick—it’s not easy, or even a reasonable request! So for me the challenge was figuring out how to interject abstraction while keeping this gorgeous bodily imagery.

That process was a journey of discovery and a real challenge. I couldn’t just start editing with “scene one,” so to speak. I set up nine layers of footage in my timeline and watched them simultaneously. Then I spent hours just watching, seeing which moments were speaking to one another. I had ideas in advance of what I thought would work with what, but in the end, you just look at the material and see comes out of it. But it was really scary to spend all this money and not know what you’re going to end up with. Like, “what if I blow all this money and it really sucks?” I know that’s a horribly commercial way to look at things, and obviously this is not a commercial project, but you know, you’re given a big chunk of money and you want it to be what you want it to be. You want it to be successful. But if you don’t have a script, if you’re only working with a feeling, it’s a scary place to be. But I know that I could only have made this work now, at this stage in my career, because I’ve been working long enough to know that even if I don’t know what I’m doing, I know what I’m doing. I have confidence.

Filmmaker: Another question inspired by the text has to do with the word “transgression.” As you write, the project positions “transgression as a necessary state of knowing or unknowing within the brutalizing context of necropolitical violence and collective grief.” You’ve been making transgressive work and work dealing with transgression for nearly 40 years. But this work is arriving at a time when the meaning of the word “transgression” is being defined differently by different groups of people. Within the context of this piece, what does transgression mean to you?

Handelman: I would say my work back in the ’80s and ’90s was a lot more transgressive than my work now because the culture has caught up to those of us who were confronting and celebrating radical sex and shifting forms of gender 40 years ago. But of course that’s not to say these things aren’t still taboo, and clearly there are still many groups of people still trying to silence us. But I think the word “transgression,” like the words “underground” or “radical,” has lost its power because it’s been commodified by the white supremacist industrial complex and sold back to consumers. It is no longer a position claimed by the outlaw. It’s a genre.

Before using the word now, I always go back to the dictionary definition. It means “an act that goes against a law, rule, or code of conduct; an offense” To transgress means that there is a border, a line—be it social, political, or religious—and there are great consequences if you cross that line. But as all transgressors know, there is also great freedom and knowledge when you cross that line.

In Delirium, the use of transgression is both embedded within the construction of the work, which transgresses the line between the cinema screen and viewer, and it also represents the transgressions of myself, and the people within the piece, and the work that we do every day just to survive in a world that doesn’t want us to exist. How transgression is necessary for not only our survival, but to thrive. I’m also thinking about the line between knowing and unknowing. And how we are constantly transgressing back and forth between what we know, what we think we know, what we think other people know, and what other people think they know about us.

Filmmaker: Delirium Part One: Death (The Breakdown) is the first part of a larger project. Can you tell us a bit about how that larger project will manifest?

Handelman: Yes, this is a launch for the bigger project. Delirium in its entirety will be a 90-minute, multiscreen live film experience, with dancers and musicians. Each section includes a central performer whose own work excavates the dark and uncomfortable spaces of political disintegration and circuits of desire through doom aesthetics. I’m getting ready to shoot the next section with composer and visual artist M. Lamar, whose incredible work defines the Negrogothic, and there are two more performers who are on my wish list, but yet to be confirmed. Keeping my fingers crossed.

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