Interviewing 3Package deal artist Josefin Arnell
The Swedish Josefin Arnell (1984) was the artist for the 3package deal of the AFK in collaboration with Das Graduate School and Over het IJ Festival as part of our coalition Public Realm last year. In this deal performance and theater are connected to the public domain. Our curator Petra Heck had a talk with her.
Hi Josefin, can you tell us a bit about yourself, as a person and an artist, where you grew up and your relationship to the Netherlands?
I moved to Amsterdam in 2012 to do a master’s degree at Sandberg Instituut. Directly after that I participated in the 2 year residency program at Rijksakademie, and I stayed. I grew up in a small village in the north of Sweden surrounded by forest and mountains. We spent a lot of time on the ski slopes and I had my own snowmobile from the age of 6. I was dreaming about jazz dance but there was no such thing. Fortunately we got a new neighbor that had 15 Icelandic horses so my horse fantasy was fulfilled. My family can be called creative in how they act and make decisions on an everyday basis but the only artists I could relate to were 2 old male painters that made dark colour motives of old people, reindeers and muskox. I sewed my own clothes, dracula capes and pyjamas and my mother ordered me a drawing course on how to draw crying children. The context I grew up in was partly an idyllic situation and surrounding – polished on the outside to hide some of the mayhem on the inside; a bit like Sweden’s welfare system. This has shaped my practice and the themes I’m working with so far.
Can you elaborate a bit about your practice and thematics you work in?
All my work is somehow based on personal experience or is at least a starting point for me. I try to think towards healing or mentally growing while making work, I like to think about it as exorcism. Whenever it is performance, film, sculptures or drawings, I think in characters and storytelling, often short scenes that don’t necessarily belong together. It mostly ends up in a family drama and family politics. 😉
I have been kind of obsessed with the idea of birth. At the moment I’m extremely fascinated by these images of horses being born. The actual details on giving birth are quite present in my work. For example I wrote a poem collection called the inflatable pool system about the perfect method of giving birth. While together with my art collective duo HellFun in our ongoing season I’M IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE it’s all about strategies for pimping one’s libido and the creation of a fictional surrogate and babycare business. In my film Now the time of blossoming arrives / den blomster tid nu kommer (2018) my alcoholic mum is shooting beer cans while singing a Swedish hymn about the rotten grass that is ‘born’ only to die again to give space to fresh grass when spring is in the air.
Even though part of my work is documentary based, I think fiction is the best remedy for letting us think freely and break out of the expectations of what we think we are supposed to do. With fiction, I can be playful and I can distance myself from pain and dare to break it apart into something rather fun or pathetic. It’s a way not taking myself too seriously. I wish I could say my way of working is playful but that’s not true because I’m such an anxious person, meaning it’s crucial for me to implement a huge amount of faith and self caring practices in order to force that playfulness. I’m getting better at it though. 🙂
Stichting NDSM-werf has this partnership with Over het IJ Festival and Das Graduate School to team up for the 3package deal of the AFK Fund wherein we can propose and select an artist. Our coalition is called Public Realm, connecting performance and theatre to the public realm. For the current edition (2019-2020) we selected you and you wrote a proposal for that. Can you elaborate on that plan a bit, the relation it has to the context of Amsterdam North, etc.?
In terms of Public Realm, I’m interested in recreation centres – for who and how accessible they are. Depending on whether they are for free or if you need to be economically safe to be able to afford to participate. Even if a place is open and inviting, it doesn’t mean that you feel invited or feel the right to be there – that it feels safe to be there. In relation to this I’m immediately thinking about horse stables which are often associated with a rather pricey hobby. From my own memories of the countryside where I as a kid was riding for free in exchange for my dad to help out in the stables. And in contrast, when I was finally going to my first pony camp and how much everything surrounding the horses was of importance; such as the clothes you were wearing, the right tools, the rules and all the names of all these riding rules. Early on, I became interested in western style riding which I thought was a more free approach to this (which is not true).
In Amsterdam I was looking for a stable that was more inviting to an economically diverse group. I have been working with a stable community that is also a ‘zorgboerderij’ located in Floradorp, Amsterdam Noord. It’s different from most of the other stables I’ve visited in Amsterdam. The variety of visitors is huge compared to the often upper middle class stables in cities. Here, they do western style riding and horse therapy which are often merged into each other. Though it’s a tight community, they try to be open without excluding anyone. It’s like an extended family that sucks you in and makes you want to come back.
In this work you concentrate on a few subjects that are recurring in your work like motherhood, horses, femininity, empowerment and being in control and fitting in the world (or not), and the way these certain subjects are displayed in media, could you elaborate on your fascination for these themes and how you are dealing with it in your work, and this work specifically?
Initially I was thinking a lot about breeding and the genetic manipulation with animal species in relation to human needs. I think that’s a perfect example of human power of control. In the film I shot at the stable, I focused more on the dynamic between friendships as well as complicated links between love, trust and control. Control can be subtle and soft and therefore can sometimes feel comforting whereas at other times it is violent and abusive. The scenes are inspired partly by the actual stable but mostly comes out of research wherein I have been documenting different horse stables focusing on girls over the last 6 years. I have also been trying to step back into my own experiences and emotions as a horse obsessed teen and the stables I was hanging out in. It is interesting how a small human girl body wants to master a huge animal. It’s brave. It’s a great responsibility to take care of a horse, and this responsibility is often also given to the girls at the stables. I remember feeling very proud being around horses; it was challenging and empowering. But another memory was often feeling scared.
The film centres around 5 fictional teenage characters. One of them is a ghost, she is very emo, and has a different tone of voice to the rest. This girl feels miserable and more anxious than the other girls. Whether this feeling of difference and being excluded from the group is because she is not being seen by the rest of the girls or has another reason remains ambiguous; because of this and her feelings of rejection, she is naughty to the other girls and makes a mess at the stables.
As in many of my films the characters appear as a group but the feeling of being left out always comes to the forefront. The stable arena becomes a microcosmos that can be used to talk about hierarchies, trust and group dynamics within any kind of community setting.
Another element in this work is the healing aspect that is considered in horse therapy. There are a lot of things we can learn from horses. The horse becomes a mirror of our behaviour and attitude. I think it is interesting how we use horses for human health reasons.
Can you write about the development of this project, the process behind it, your way of working?
It’s the first time I worked entirely with a group of people that I didn’t know before, where all of them had never acted before and where more than half of the crew were minors. Instead of rehearsing we did a couple of workshops to get to know each other and for me to understand what would be possible in terms of acting. We took a trip together to Michelle Bannink who has a horse sanctuary that is focused on the horse’s needs rather than the human’s needs. We swam with horses and did some energy work.
For the shooting at the stable I developed a loose script – even though I followed it more than I ever did before, it was adjusted at times to fit the situation and our moods. I often try to give a lot of space to the actors, sometimes it works and sometimes not. I used a mixture of asking questions to make the actors speak in front of the camera but mostly we did call and response. We filmed on 4 rainy days.
Did Covid-19 have an effect on the development and content of this project?
It had a lot of effects. It was impossible to know if our plans would go through. My initial plan was to spend time at the stable, several times a week, during the spring months to film the documentary parts and to develop a script very much based on the location and together with the people there; to get to know eachother better and to spend some time during rehearsing. Because of corona this was not possible. Instead, I wrote a script during lockdown in April and May and only met the people at the stable in June and shot the film in the beginning of July. Which means that instead of having sufficient time for development and process, the actual production time was short and needed to be quick. The actors and the crew kept on changing until the day before the actual shooting because of corona circumstances. Funding replies were postponed, meaning I still have a lot of open invoices, which also affects the people around me that I work with.
In what way have the current circumstances affected your way of thinking, working, etc. in general?
I try to let go of things, sometimes that means not having huge expectations.
When are you hoping to finalize/realize this project? The 3-package deal has a presentation moment usually…
The unpacking 3 package deal took place on the 4th of September at Vondel CS. It was a one night event where I screened part of the film (in progress). The film I’m working on is partly commissioned for a solo show at UKS in Oslo. I will show it there in an installation mid September. I’m hoping to get some festival screenings for the film and I will be having a private screening in the stable in Amsterdam North for all the people involved.
How does this work relate to the context or environment it was shot in?
The physical environment helps me to develop and become inspired to create scenes and actions. I would rather create something in an existing spot than search for a specific environment I have in mind (that might not exist). The same goes for people. To work with people in a certain setting and community teaches me a lot and gives me inspiration and you get to meet people you otherwise would never get to know. I felt immediately comfortable in the stable, it reminded me of similar personalities I had grown up with and am familiar with.
Initially I wanted to blur the story more with documentary elements, but because of the time limitations it was important for me to make it a fictional piece. In order to create these fictional elements I think a lot about my role as a director, what position I’m taking on within this new place and situation. Being an outsider and asking people in their home setting to take part in my work is no little detail to overcome easily. This stable was very generous and brave to trust me making this film. More and more people at the stable wanted to take part in it. Now I’m very excited (and a little scared) to hear what they will think of it and their experiences, now that some time has passed.
Can you say something about the consequences of the 3package deal for you? What did it in general bring you this last year?
It has been a great economical safety net, especially when corona came and swept away most of my salary from cancelled gigs and shows. But in general it has allowed me to focus on a couple of projects and I have been able to afford a nice studio that I hope I can keep.
What kind of future plans for projects do you have in mind? Any upcoming project or idea you want to share? Are you working on this project for the Rozenstraat around Sleep with Margaret Haines still wherein you also wanted to screen this film online?
Yes, Margaret Haines and I have been planning a show at Rozenstraat for the last 3 years and hopefully it will happen in Spring 2021 :). I’m taking part in a new Biennial in Palermo called ‘KINESIS’ that focuses on performance and film work. Together with my duo collective HellFun (with Max Göran) we have a new video commission that has not been publicly announced yet.
It’s not easy to make plans at the moment as most stuff has been postponed. I still want to make a VR (Virtual Reality) piece that takes place in a horse stable, focusing on horse muscles and business. I will look at the horse as an example of body objectification and I want to focus more on breeding and human hunger for the perfect horse. Annina Machaz will play in the film; she is an amazing actress based in Zurich, she is extremely fun. And I’m in contact with Illona Staller (Cicciolina) whom I truly hope will say yes to be part of it, and that I can afford her. I’m interested in talking to her about aging and the demands and preconceptions that women often face getting older. This relates to a couple of earlier works where I have for example worked with my mother and in another work Blood Sister that I did in collaboration with Helen Anna Flanagan where a group of retired women meet to get drunk and perform hazing rituals in a rose garden.