An interview with Interstitial Theatre's August artist Sarah Bliss. See her three-channel video piece, Hide Not Your Face, on first Thursday, August 4th from 8-11pm at Interstitial Theatre (1701 First Ave S).

Kira Burge First off, could you tell me about the piece, Hide Not Your Face, that Interstitial Theatre will be exhibiting in August?

Sarah Bliss Hide Not Your Face is a three-channel video installation. It explores the phenomenology of pain and the elastic nature of time. It challenges our inclination to turn away from what is hard to see and know, making a call to bear witness.        

KB In Hide Not Your Face, the two flanking projections are of sheep who function as voyeurs to the central projection of a human face. Could you explain your choice to use animals, as opposed to people, in those two channels?

SB I like that you pick up on the central importance of the gaze in this work.

I place the viewer in the very uncomfortable position of watching an emotionally wrenching scene, with little relief, asking him or her to bear witness. I draw on the long history of sheep’s use as sacrificial animals, so right away there’s a correspondence between them and the anguished horror of the person. But unlike humans, who function in historical, linear time, often trapped in the past or future, sheep experience time in the present moment. This gap is really interesting to me, and it’s reflected in the architecture of the installation – the physical separation between the three projections. The sheep can’t get caught up in the emotion of the human drama in the way that we do, and so they remind us of the larger world that continues to function all around us when we’re trapped in our own individual horror. The challenge for us as humans is to find the way to bridge the gap between these very different ways of being. Therein lies healing.

But I don’t see the sheep as voyeuristic. Instead, their almost continuous gaze at the viewer brings attention to the potentially voyeuristic nature of the viewer’s own watching. In so doing, the work insists on the viewer’s participation in its circumstances, and makes the viewer’s response the real subject of the work. The sheep embody another way of engaging with the anguish: bearing witness, as opposed to either watching or turning away.

KB Could you elaborate on the term “bear witness”, explaining its importance to the viewer’s role as witness?

SB I’m interested in the dynamics of seeing and looking, what it is to been seen -- to be known – as opposed to being looked at. Our cultural norm is to distance ourselves from our own and others’ pain. Bearing witness is a stance of solidarity and compassion, a way of being-with instead of apart-from. It acknowledges and honors the life stories of those around us, and embraces the Other as part of the human community.

KB You utilized music quite poignantly in Hide Not Your Face, was that something that happened naturally?

SB Thanks, yes. The soundtrack includes Theo Bleckmann's arrangement of Guillaume de Machaut's Douce Dame Jolie, with live electronic looping. It was something I stumbled upon on Facebook. I knew immediately it was exactly what I wanted. Bleckmann’s electronic looping makes this a very contemporary performance of a 14th century song: I love this kind of playing with time, which Hide Not Your Face also does. The acoustics of the space I was filming in are phenomenal, and the resonant timbre and haunting quality of Bleckmann’s performance express it beautifully.

KB As you just mentioned, your work includes architectural spaces, what sorts of buildings are you drawn to?

SB I’m particularly interested in spaces that utilize architecture to enhance or activate spiritual experience. I’m interested in the ability of spaces to record and hold the energetic and material history of actions and emotions. One kind of space will intensify the energetic record, and another can dissipate it. How does energy move through space, and how does a structure harness or channel it?

KB The building that Hide Not Your Face was filmed in, I speculate was chosen because of both its visual and acoustic qualities. Is that accurate and would you expound more about your choice of location is this particular piece?

SB The space is the abandoned ruins of a brick beehive charcoal kiln, referred to locally as a “coke kiln”. It’s an architectural rarity. 30 feet in diameter, and 35 feet to the apex of its dome, it turned a packed load of 90 cords of wood into 20 tons of charcoal over a several-weeks-long burning process where temperatures reached 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. The embedded energy of years of such intense alchemical transformation is physically palpable still – it almost knocked me over when I first entered the space. It’s a space I’ve been working in very actively for the past year, a place of great power that embodies both utter emptiness and the potentiality that can only emerge from such emptiness.

KB As an artist and patron I am always interested in where my peers find inspiration on a day-to-day level. Where do you find inspiration?

SB The coke kiln. Sacred text. Authentic movement (an improvisational movement practice that brings unconscious material to awareness). Deep conversation with friends. Dance.

KB If I were to peek into your studio or scroll through your recent browser history, what would I find?

SB Research related to two new room-sized multimedia installations I’m working on, both of which investigate sacred space and experience, and forefront the body as a source of knowing. That work will be featured in solo shows in 2012-2013 at Mobius in Cambridge, MA, and at the Sarah Doyle Gallery at Brown University in Providence, RI.

KB And finally if you were interviewing yourself, what would you want to know, what question would you ask?

SB (With a nod to the poet Mary Oliver) What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

*above image is from Interstitial Theatre August 4, 2011 screening and installation of Hide Not Your Face by Sarah Bliss.