re:future Lab featuring
Hollie Miller (b. 1988, UK) is a British performance artist. She studied art at the Royal College of Art (MA 2016) and contemporary dance at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance (BPA 2010). In her performances, films, photographs, installations and sculptures she combines artistic formats with bodywork. Her work has been shown in the UK, Europe, Argentina and Japan in contemporary art galleries, museums and numerous festivals such as: Chalton Gallery (UK, 2020), MEM Experimental Festival Bilbao (Spain, 2019), NAIRS Contemporary Art Center (Switzerland, 2019), Airspace Gallery (UK, 2019), La Ira de Dios (Argentina, 2018), The NewBridge Project (UK, 2018), Revolve Performance Art Days (Sweden, 2018).
Between birth and death
ANIMUS (2020), video still, courtesy of the artist. Materials: 100 litres of lubricant, stretch mesh, polyethylene pool. Technology: axolotl, sampler, modified echo-based delay, pre-recorded samples, hydrophones, granular sampler. Copyright: Hollie Miller & Craig Scott.
Hollie Miller observes everyday gestures and normative gender behaviour and transforms them with poetic sensuality into ephemeral body sculptures. Influenced by feminist positions in earlier art history, she deals with vulnerability as a form of political resistance to overcome violence against women and traditional role stereotypes. In addition, she explores the ephemeral in the digital age and sees the documentation and artifacts of her performances, such as film, photography and sound, as well as the clothing and materials that are used, as independent manifestations of her oeuvre.
The occasion for this feature is one of the artist’s recent works: ANIMUS (2020), a collaboration with sound artist Craig Scott, through which I began to take a closer look at Hollie's work.
In the video work ANIMUS (2020) we see a kind of amniotic sac floating freely in a black background. In it a female adult figure, the artist herself, who by her dance-like body movements repeatedly expands and contracts the membrane surrounding her. We hear her breathing and sounds caused by the wet material and her movements. From somewhere in the invisible outside, we hear bird-voices, is it just our imagination or is there a kind of human echo to the sounds of the embryonic figure?
Hollie herself describes the setup and intention of this work as follows:
“A hydrophone is immersed in a pool of slime, which acts as a substance for my voice to travel through. The slime envelopes me in an embryonic state suspending my physicality between birth and death. Craig transforms my voice with the use of live sampling and delays mixed with field recordings. Together we explore tactile and aural perception in search of new dynamics and textures. ‘Animus’ explores a visceral metamorphosis of the organic and synthetic by cultivating a chaotic interdependency between human and digital. It suggests a communal body or second skin that offers new possibilities of sound and movement as sensory affective language”.
Initially captured by the fascinating multi-sensuality of image, movement and sound, I approached the work in a second step using the title to explore its possible levels of meaning: The Latin term 'animus' describes a series of emotional states such as determination and courage on the one hand - and desire and lust on the other. These are all characteristics that are usually assigned to the male principle in socio-cultural terms. Thus, C.G. Jung, one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century and a scholar of Sigmund Freud, also uses the term in his analytical psychology of archetypes for the male functional complex in a woman's subconscious. What is meant here are representations of masculinity as they have been imprinted in the human psyche since the dawn of civilization and have thus been perpetuated as cultural and social distinguishing criteria until today. Inner images that reveal themselves in our dreams and also influence our fantasy lives and our behaviour. But the term 'Animus' also describes a male heroic figure who, as a creative being in the sense of word creation, brings rationality and meaning to the world. In contrast, Anima, his female counterpart, is his mother, daughter, sister or lover. The feminine stands for creation in a purely physical sense and is thus subordinated to the male principle of the brain - for the human mind dominates nature.
The perpetuation of these gender attributions over the centuries and up to the present day can still be seen in differences in men and women’s lives and career opportunities. For a long time, the male cult of genius was also followed in art, and female artists were not granted a strong work of art of their own. In art, too, the gender pay gap still exists today; female artists achieve lower market prices and are underrepresented compared to their male colleagues in museums and galleries worldwide.
Assuming, watching Hollie Miller's video, we witness the artist's dream, shall we understand that the artist imagines her own metamorphosis process, the one of her fellow female artists, or is it even the re-birth of humanity as a whole? What would come to birth here? Is it the merge of normative gender differences into a single human principle? Does the interweaving of technology and biology suggest that we are attending a performance of trans human in-vitro growth? Or is it rather the rebirth of a mature adult? Into which new environment would this creature then be projected? And if we could decode the sound in the video, which dialogue between inside and outside could we track? What mission would this rebirthed human give to the New World and how would this world react?
in small movements
ANIMUS (2020), courtesy of the artist. Copyright: Hollie miller & Craig scott. Photo Credit: Yuichiro Noda.
Hollie, to what extent does the principle of hope play a role in your work? From your point of view as an artist, can we ever dare to find a better world in the face of the catastrophes and crises caused by human beings themselves, which are characteristic of our epoch?
It’s interesting that you use this word ‘hope’ after discussing ‘Animus’, as this work responds to the current climate change emergency, in which my animalistic movements in a pool of slime are reminiscent of an animal caught in an oil spill. I attempt to overcome this by cultivating the materiality of the slime to form a second skin that instead of suffocating, nurtures, by forming an air tight seal that contains my body heat and becomes a substance for my voice to travel through. ‘Animus’ proposes an environmental provocation through portraying a co-dependency of the organic and synthetic. It suggests a pre or post human ‘in-vitro growth’ to imagine a mutually beneficial way of co-existing with new artificial materials.
What do you consider to be the calling of contemporary art and what should be the role of artists in society? Could artists be catalysts in the transformation process that we desperately need?
Every artist is unique and plays a different and necessary part in society by creatively expressing something personal that contributes to positive political, cultural or social change. I believe that all small gestures that hold meaning for the artist have the capacity to transform how others perceive their own reality. In my work I seek to challenge the hyper sexualisation of young women by the commercial industries. In ‘Animus’ I use my body as a visceral material to reclaim the sensual as a political tactic to overcome normalized violence on women’s bodies. I use my own body to explore vulnerability as a form of resistance and engender empathy. I often explore ideas around metamorphosis and embody different animal archetypes to shape shift through restrictive gender norms and transgress ingrained oppressive socially conditioned behaviour.
In times of crisis and great upheaval, which role does storytelling play?
I’m more interested in non-linear time, the layering of imagery and circular narratives than linear storytelling. My live works are often endurance based over a long duration. You don’t see this in the film but ‘Animus’ has been performed live for 4 hours, in which I suffered from extreme cold and had to alter my movements and breathing pattern to maintain body heat. When I entered this alternate state there was a shift in my physicality that gave a more urgent and unruly reading to the work. The audience observes subtle changes such as the goose bumps on my skin and witnesses my psychological battle as I try to overcome this struggle. I hope that this direct and confrontational engagement with the limits of my own body relates to the human condition and how we problem solve in a crisis.
How could a dialogue between art and other disciplines look like in order to contribute to shaping the future? You also embed dance and various technologies in your work. What other disciplines would you like to exchange ideas with as an artist? From this, which ideas and new concepts could emerge?
My work sits between performance art, cinema and dance. I work with sound artist/ creative technologist Craig Scott to embed technology into my work. In ‘Animus’ I am making sounds with my voice and body that are captured by a hydrophone. Craig processes these live and mixes them with contrasting dry pre-recorded sounds such as crackling charcoal and breaking glass. I use my body as a biological specimen interweaved with technology that captures the visceral wetness of morphing and the guttural sounds of growth. I’m interested in psychology, you mentioned Jung earlier, and ways I can use performance to delve into the ‘hidden’ parts of my subconscious and embody my personal animus – anima psyche to merge both my masculine and feminine attributes into a less binary and more holistic way of being.
Assuming that a better world could be built on the ruins of the old one - what would this scenario look like in your personal eyes? What do you wish for a better tomorrow?
I’ve been thinking a lot about ruin-relation recently as I have an upcoming performance at Waverley Abbey Ruins and have worked in a lot of derelict buildings. I’m fascinated by how ruins are in a state of being and becoming that elude firm fixation, whilst enduring a poetic testimony to a forgotten community. Visiting them is an abyssal experience that reminds us of our own annihilation. I don't like the idea of building over ruins and instead prefer to spend time in them: rather than seeing ruins as mute forms I see them as durably present and alive with potent histories. In their plight ruins perform neediness, which makes me think that we need to tend and care for the wounds of our past as a way of creating a better tomorrow.
Are there any strategies you personally use to find your way into a new project? It is often said that the particular vigour of art lies in courageously and fearlessly seeking the new and starting over again and again on a blank piece of paper. Do you have rituals or techniques that you have developed for yourself or how do you set out on a new work of art?
My body is my primary material, to which I gradually introduce carefully sourced objects, clothes and raw materials to explore their properties in relation to the body. I start by physically playing in the studio or site often alone in front of a camera and then watch this and go back and forth until I find an image that I want to evolve. It’s often later that I try to verbalize ineffable instincts and start to understand what concepts I have been intuitively working through. I try to learn through doing and be free inside creation.
And one last question at the end: In your opinion, who else you personally know should definitely be portrayed in the re:future Lab interview series?
You should interview artist/ filmmaker Sam Williams about his work on queer ecology and multi-species entanglements.
Hollie, thank you very much for the insightful exchange and your reflections.
Text and interview: Madeleine Schwinge
The interview was conducted in April 2020