Featured Artist #8: Caitlin Berrigan

Caitlin Berrigan




Medical myth and knowledge, from Aristotle to modern gynecological texts, is the subject of Caitlin Berrigan’s moody and unsettling “Concoctions”. Set in a clinical space that appears to be a modern hospital, but could just as easily be some kind of anonymous purgatory, the woozy viewer is left to wander from room to room all the while being lectured on various pathologies of the female body. This is a place at the intersection of fear and desire, teetering on the verge of losing its solidity. Curiously, the effect produces both a diffuse anxiety and a palpable narcotic pleasure.

We asked Caitlin to respond by e-mail to a few questions about her work. Her responses shed light on a creative process that fuses intuition and emotion with a deliberate and critical intellect.

"Concoctions" is a video, but also a literary performance. Can you talk about your interest in literature, words, spoken word, etc?

Textual research is always of great inspiration to me. I was interested in overlapping myth and medicine in "Concoctions," and selected texts from a pool of sources covering thousands of years, into the most contemporary medical standards. Displacing these texts from their recognized authorship allows the poetic nonsense of medicine to emerge and blur the boundaries of myth and clinical knowledge. The essential evidence of the text becomes a floating signifier, and opens up imaginative possibilities and critique for the viewer. When juxtaposed against loosely related imagery, the viewer is allowed to grasp the texts in their raw literary form, and the authority of the viewer's own imagination takes control.

In terms of my work in general, my first strongest artistic practices in life were theatre and poetry, both of which rely upon the live performance of sound and language. I am fascinated with the mouth as a site in the body that is both the membrane of the body's sustenance through consumption, and its primary form of interaction with the outside world through language and the expression of desire. I am moved by the tactility of oral noisemaking— the making edible of words. It's as though the sounds of words are given body through the movement of the mouth, and their combined meaning provides the flavor and nutrition. Finding this oral excitement in unexpected literature occurs frequently in my work.

Much of your work is sculptural, relying on physical presence and sometimes even odor. interestingly, video doesn't provide these kinds of affordances. Can you talk about how video serves your interests? What are the frustrations and the pleasures for you of working in this medium?

I used to be a photographer, and while I still employ this medium in my work, I grew frustrated with it precisely because it provided an immediacy in time, but seemed limited in its capacity to communicate directly with the body of the viewer. A single image had to be loaded with too much symbolism and gesture rather than having the ability to unfold in time and space as sculpture, performance and video can.

While video is a photographic medium, it can be employed to materialize the gaze. Early optical theories posited that sight was the process of consuming tiny particles of solid bodies that recomposed themselves in the eye. Such a theory is, metaphorically, not too far off from the theory of light as particle, and serves to underline the material exchange of light, energy and bodies in optics.

I love narrative film for its ability to build relationships between bodies, space and time. The most inspiring films for me are those that enable the gaze of the viewer to be an active force within the narrative. Even if this force is made explicit through a certain kind of delightful boredom, as in minimal endurance films, it acknowledges the responsibility of the viewers and their enduring vision.

"Concoctions" was originally conceived as a video that would be shot through my mouth speaking the texts, so that the eye would be made subservient to the mouth. As the mouth articulated its words, the eye would be plunged into darkness and resurface in space according to the movement of lips. I had to drive several hours to the location and had received special permission to shoot the clinical space. Once I arrived there and made my perfect test shoot, however, the little surveillance camera on my mouth rig died. Although I could have shot the space and re-performed this concept, instead I chose a different technique to embed the gaze within my body. Holding the camera close to my body, I explored the clinical space as if touching it with my eyes. In some scenes you can see the movement of my breath gently expanding and contracting the frame. The visual intimacy and distances within this video play with the duality of sterility and comfort that necessarily coexist in a clinical space that is both anti-body and pro-body in the most profound ways. Rather than emphasize the alienation that the medical environment so often inspires, I wanted to reveal the subtle ways in which our bodies occupy, soften and come into contact with these hard edges and dull palettes.

Although "Concoctions" dwells on the body, no bodies actually appear in the piece. Is this deliberate and/or significant?

The reason for the body's visual absence is two-fold. As mentioned above, the embodied gaze makes the body implicit in the gaze and the tactile exploration of space. The emphasis lies therefore on the gaze as an entity moving through space. The gaze transfers from the camera to the viewer, in turn emphasizing the body of the viewer as the figure moving through space. The only body present therefore is their own, and their attention turns to their own physical existence.

I also like to leave large chunks out of the frame to allow the viewers' imaginations to be excited by language. The texts I chose are rich in meaning and descriptive possibilities. The body evoked through these texts is not one I wished to figure. Medical texts have figured our bodies and written them into understanding. By leaving the body out of the frame, I allow the texts to embody themselves and speak their version of the human into being.

You seem to enjoy working with dichotomies, such as the erotic vs. the clinical. Is there something about this tension that you enjoy?

Rather than dichotomies, I see them as interconnected expressions of desire and how they pile upon one other. With "Concoctions," I was interested in our desire to explore the dark and muddled insides of the body. The exploration is fueled by many desires: the instinct to nurture and care, the impulse to possess and conquer, the desire to understand, to be in control, and pure curiosity. Fear and repulsion coexist with these desires, as do eroticism, wonder, delight and astonishment.

In "Concoctions," I found the ultimate expression of this interior quest in gynecology, where the male-bodied gaze of Western medicine encounters the mythic symbols of the female body. I was interested in revealing a certain genealogy of opening up the female body. As it moved from myth to pathology, the female body and our behaviors towards it retain symbolic traces of the past. This is not to suggest a myth of origin, but to examine the ways in which the body is and always has been figured through desire and fear. There is no linear evolution to our behaviors towards the body. Rather, I hoped to reveal our continuous implicit engagement in and repetition of a variety of symbolic constructions of the body.

What effect would you like "Concoctions" to have on your audience?

The effect of the video would, I hope, be an experiential one, in which the spaces of the clinic and the spaces of medical language open up to reverse examination. The viewer has the privileged position in the scopic dynamic, rather than the archetype of the clinic maintaining control of the scopic regime. The video is not about pointing fingers or discrediting Western medicine, but about trying to match up our experience of selfhood with the concepts of the body proposed throughout Western medical history. While I would hope some discomfort would be felt, I would also hope that some pleasure and laughter could also be enjoyed through this reversal of roles.

A list of 9 important objects in your workspace?

1. A bar of fancy chocolate (rarely the same kind) 2. The stereo 3. Gigantic Wacom Tablet 4. Gutted antique Frigidaire used as a cabinet-for-all-things 5. Surplus of Uni-ball Vision Exact micro black pens 6. Document holder that reminds me paper can be organized rather than in a pile on the floor 7. Dr. Seussian potted cacti 8. Glass jar of A/V cables and connectors of all kinds 9. Jeremy Fisher's Macintosh (my laptop)

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.