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Camille Henrot

Interview by
Stuart Comer
Issue 33 — FW18/19

Oscillating between experimental fiction and anthropological gaze, a new film by French artist Camille Henrot, titled Saturday, looks into the Adventist Church to explore the relationship between religion and globalization, signaling ritual as a substitute for progress, and hope as a seed of change.

STUART COMER  In your solo presentation at Palais de Tokyo last year, entitled “Days are Dogs,” you investigated social and historical constructions around the temporal unit of the week. Saturday, a new 3D film produced for the occasion, which I then invited you to screen at the MoMA, follows the activities of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, an evangelical Christian denomination that observes the Sabbath on Saturday. Shot in New York, Washington DC, Tahiti, and Tonga, the film situates the pursuit of hope for a better life within a broader investigation of religion and human ritual. To begin, I wanted to ask how you identified the days of the week as an organizing structure for the exhibition?

CAMILLE HENROT  The Palais de Tokyo is a huge space. Given the scale and the diverse nature of my work, I wanted to provide an organizational framework to ensure that the trajectory of the exhibition was cohesive and familiar for the visitor. I thought that using a temporal structure would be interesting, especially since the days of the week seem natural to us—they are synonymous with routine and discipline—but are actually a construct. While years, months and days are connected with the rotation of the earth, moon and sun, the week is a cultural pattern inherited from the history of Christianity. In contemporary society, however, the increasing ubiquity of digital media has blurred the distinction between day and night, work and leisure. At the same time that this structure has disappeared, it has reemerged on an emotional level. On Instagram, for example, the days of the week are marked by hashtags: Monday’s hashtag signifies melancholia or a reluctance to start the working week; Throwback Thursday (#tbt) is a day dedicated to memory, to your past life; and #FitnessTuesday is a day for sport.

SC  How did you arrive at Saturday? At what point in the process of organizing the exhibition did you decide to make a 3D film, and when did the theme of religion come into play?

CH  Saturday was actually the beginning of it all. In 2010, while I was still working on Grosse Fatigue, which was later presented at the Venice Biennale in 2013, I came across the Seventh-day Adventists and their presence in the Pacific. I met with an anthropologist, Monique Jeudy-Ballini, who had been studying populations who’ve been exposed to the mission of the Seventh-day Adventists in Papua New Guinea. When I moved to New York and undertook the Smithsonian Research Fellowship, I became very interested in the dynamic between religion and science in American society. Grosse Fatigue felt like a sort of immersion into the irrationality of science. Saturday, on the other hand, looks at the hyper-contemporary influence of religion on the world we live in now, and the way in which religion and digital media have come to advocate the same moral principles. For example, there’s the obsession for transparency, and also for good health. We might not have imagined that keeping fit, following a low-calorie diet or warning about the dangers against smoking would become embedded in both religion and societal moral norms. a moral ideology. Being good is not only about behaving well, but is also about being healthy. There is a moral duty imposed upon us to keep in good health.

SC  With films like Grosse Fatigue and Saturday, you’re overwhelmed by information and trying to negotiate the possibility of constructing systems to accommodate all of it.

CH  Saturday is extremely constructed. It was made over a period of almost five years, and a considerable amount of research, interviews, and meeting people nourished the making of images. While research heavily informs the process of making and editing my films, I’m not concerned with the amount of preliminary research being visible in the finished work. I like to retain enough information to stimulate the viewer to make their own connections and draw their own meanings. While there is a narrative that runs through Saturday, this thread is not overtly explicit, and is sometimes obscured by the amount of information on the screen. I believe that this is also how life appears to us today: we draw meaning by decoding the multiplicity of information transmitted.

SC  A lot has been written about your interest in anthropology. I’m interested in keeping that in mind with Saturday. How was the footage shot? How did you approach this community of Seventh-day Adventists? What strategies did you develop to engage with them?

CH  My relationship with anthropology is quite critical. What interests me about anthropology is very much the problem of it, the fact that it’s always confronted with problems and has no solutions: the problem of having man as a subject and as a counterpart, the problem of who’s inside and who’s outside, the problem of perspective. I’m interested in the doubt that can be cast upon reality within the anthropological format, and I feel that this issue is also at play when making a film. I am strongly inspired by films which blur the boundaries between genres, such as documentary, experimental and fiction. In the making of Saturday, I was influenced by Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1930 film People on Sunday, which is part staged and part documentary—an oscillation I sought to explore within my new film.

SC  Indeed, the interplay between document and fiction is another hybrid in your work, as well as direct observation and appropriation. It’s slightly unclear in Saturday which scenes are staged and shot by you and which are appropriated—like the newscast or the footage of crashing waves, which is reminiscent of a screensaver. They’re all a bit slippery.

CH  A lot of people think that Saturday contains stock footage, but I shot all of the footage myself, other than the footage of the crashing waves, which required special equipment to shoot. The footage from the SDA TV studio also looks very much like found footage, but it was filmed on the set of the headquarters of the SDA’s TV network, The Hope Channel. We filmed the broadcast live—so some shots show the presenters through the screen of the camera—and subsequently, the crew reshot the program, enabling us to film the presenters from a frontal point of view. This interplay between reality and artifice is explored throughout Saturday, especially in relation to the idea of hope. Ultimately, hope is based on belief: the faith one invests in what he sees and the words he hears.

SC  The news headlines that run as a sort of ticker tape effect through the images and the scenes in Saturday—were those actual headlines that you had accumulated, or are they made up?

CH  The inclusion of the news tickers was influenced by the political climate at the moment. I started to shoot the film in October 2017, at the moment of Trump’s election. I was in Washington DC, shooting at the Seventh-day Adventist Headquarters, on the day of his inauguration, so I was able to film the protests that ensued in the city the following day and incorporate footage into the final work. This feeling of devastation and apocalpyse was also shared by the Seventh day Adventist community. When I began researching the film around five years ago, my initial conception was to explore hope and our relationship to faith and truth in the digital era, but the resonance of current events and the overarching context of fear, dispair and anger impacted heavily upon the development of the work.
In terms of the headlines that appear in the film—like the news stories that scroll across the taxi screens of New York cabs, which read almost like poetry—I wanted to retain this ambiguity between fiction and what is recognizable as fact. I chose a series of events that really happened, but reformulated and rephrased them. I tried to avoid news that was too recognizable or associated with a specific moment in favor of universal events and injustices that frequently recur, such as people being poisoned, oil spills, violence against the environment, against women and against native communities.

SC  I love how you juxtapose the news strip with those signboards towards the end of the film. The signs are just so earnest, reflecting these very straightforward belief systems that are completely at odds with this other register of language. What are those signs exactly?

I discovered the signs in a self-made museum created on the grounds of a private residence in Tonga. The museum is named Public Intelligence Administration (PIA), in a direct parody of US government agencies, and the land contains multiple clusters of hand-painted boards, which together form an architecture of signs. The Methodist religion plays a significant role in the Kingdom of Tonga, and you can see in these signs how some of the religion’s ideas have been integrated and others rejected.
I wanted to shoot in Tonga because I felt the particular situation of the island echoed the worldwide relationship between religion and globalization. Although it’s not something explicitly visible in the film, I was interested the fact that the Seventh-day Adventist community celebrates Saturday on Sunday, as they have been attributed to the time zone of New Zealand, and operate on the opposite side of the meridian to Tahiti, despite being culturally close and in the same “solar time zone.” While Tonga and Tahiti are just a few hours apart by plane, they have a time difference of 24 hours.
Religion plays an especially prominent role in peoples’ lives in Tonga. On Sunday, the streets are totally empty whilst the community goes to church, and there are more churches than any other public or private institutions. There’s a saying on the island that it’s half-bitter, half-sweet, because while Tonga was never colonized by a government, they were colonized by missionaries.

SC  In terms of constructing Saturday at the moment of Trump’s election, where the world really seems to be in a major state of crisis, and then invoking religion specifically, what point did you try to arrive at? It’s not just religion, it’s baptism, redemption, ideas for saving ourselves from this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

CH  Saturday is very much a film about hope, and the way humans build strategies to maintain hope in an environment of violence or despair or discourage. The hope to change yourself radically and live eternally is something religion provides. The hope to cure brain disease is something medical science provides. The hope for radical political change is something the moment of protest provides. As Ernst Bloch writes in The Principle of Hope, those who call upon realism as opposed to utopia are often the enemy of social progress. While ritual and cultural products can be regarded as a substitute for progress, it is hope and belief that provide the seeds of change, and the first steps towards action.

Camille Henrot (French, b. 1978) is an artist who lives and works in New York.
Stuart Comer is Chief Curator of Media and Performance Art at MoMA, New York.
Images courtesy of the artist and König Galerie.

(Edited transcript of a public conversation held in May 2018 at MoMA).

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