Interview with Victoria Fu

Susanne Ø. Sæther

Clip from  The Lake House, 2006, digital video

The two women in The Lake House (2007) live in opposing temporal directions. One is treated by the other as if living backwards were an affliction, and the resulting relationship is based on this temporal struggle. This video is a suggestion of a palindrome--a cinematic situation that is theoretically impossible, but the slippages it creates are the key. They suggest the elasticity of time, how it meanders with continuous ruptures in its flow--some moments are even undefinable or directionless. The characters' relationship is co-dependent and a tightly locked loop. Both visually and psychologically, they echo the temporal structures they inhabit, presented in formations of symmetry and doubling.

SS: You have for a number of years been exploring the ‘rewind’ motif formally and thematically in your film and video work. When was the first time you first pursued this motif and what attracted you to using it?

VF: Actually, one of my earliest films, Convergence: Part I, from 2004, is about a woman whose psychological and temporal space is completely alienated from her surroundings because she lives backwards to everyone else. She falls and stumbles into the flow of time, as if her acts have been dictated without will. She is practically disembodied, a bit like a sleepwalker, helplessly watching her own limbs go through the motions they were slated to do. I like what that intimates. There's something wonderfully sad about her self-awareness: she steps forward into her own previously-tread footsteps while those behind her disappear. I used grainy 16-millimeter film stock to highlight the dream-like feel of it, and the audio makes the eating and singing sequences almost like a horror movie.

SS: 'Rewind' is perhaps most explicitly explored in your recent video, The Lake House. Here, two young women carry out mundane activities such as eating, grooming, and so on. While these activities are intimate and shared, the two characters seem to be separated in that their times flow in opposite directions, as gestures, movements and natural forces show us. How would you describe the complex sense of time suggested here?

VF: As opposed to Convergence, the characters in The Lake House are normalized to their temporal conditions; it is not so much a source of anxiety as it is a kind of ballet of temporalities.  One is a 'caretaker' for the other, whose affliction might or might not include her 'backwards' way of living.  The control-struggle of their relationship corresponds to the friction of time flow, but neither is fully successful in imposing her particular direction.  The oppositional pairing allowed me to think of the video as a palindrome. For me, it set up a puzzle without an answer, since I found it impossible to make it a truly palindromatic film. Each scene merely suggests a smaller palindrome, and woven together, they imply a larger possible palindrome. Because of this fuzziness around the structure, it also makes the sense of time unclear, which I found fascinating. I wanted moments when you weren't sure what direction, if any, time was going.

Clip from Convergence: Part I, 2004, 16-millimeter film

SS: This co-presence of opposing temporalities in each scene must have been quite challenging to establish. How did you go about making this work?

VF: In both Convergence: Part I and The Lake House, the actors play their physical motions backwards so that later, in the editing room, I could run the footage backwards to make it seem forwards--an act of extended 'rewind,' in effect. Certain parts were particularly challenging, like shampooing hair backwards, or eating and swimming backwards. And then having one actor be backwards and the other, forwards--yet interacting--was like choreographing a dance. Tightly scripting the action and multiple rehearsals were absolutely necessary--and even then, there were moments of utter confusion. But I like that, and I think it's an essential part of the idea to get thrown off.

Still from Convergence: Part III, 2004, 16-millimeter film

SS: At certain points in the work, the temporal palindrome plays out as much as a conflict or struggle, such as when the one woman’s hair is combed backwards and forward alternately. Palindromatic, conflicting, pushing and pulling--do you see the characters as opposing temporalities, or as two co-existing dimensions of temporality, as simultaneity?

VF: I wanted the characters' struggle to echo time's tug-of-war in the piece--but, as you correctly suggest, ‘opposing’ temporal directions does not mean mutually exclusivity; they absolutely can be contrary, yet co-exist in 'simultaneity,' something I tried to convey in the narrative. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the attempt at palindromes, I veered away from a clear-cut binary of backwards and forwards. Time is wild and slippery. It oozes, and can be utterly elastic, have mass and shape, be both something and nothing, fast and slow, passive and active. What better medium to exploit that nature than a linear one, where the simplest disturbance is jarring? It says to me that it is possible to have glimpses beyond what we are culturally conditioned to believe. Our fixed definition of time is just one symptom. That makes me feel optimistic on good days, and other days, time can be oppressive. I hope the structure of The Lake House opens alternatives with small suggestions that there is no absolute directionality, more like loose points in a non-linear field of time.

I also like to think of time as another major character in my films, the antagonist whose contention sets the tone of alienation. It's not specifically about me or my own identity as it is more a rudimentary question or metaphoric read on difference. The backwards motif is treated by the character in Convergence as the source of her isolation anxiety, and in The Lake House, it has evolved into an accepted condition, the character's idiosyncratic way of being. That may be a reflection of my attitudes changing between those two projects: in the first case, the experience of difference as trauma, and in the second, one as celebration of that which is alien (I think of Philippe Parreno's The Boy from Mars as another good example of this spirit).

Still from Portmanteau, 2009, 16-millimeter film dual projection

SS: For me, the ‘rewind effect,’ in The Lake House, establishes a feeling of unease that relates to the Uncanny or the ‘unheimlich’ in Freud’s proper sense. Including two dimensions of the German root, ‘heimlich’ as we know means homely, comfortable and friendly, but a competing, less commonly referenced meaning of the root is concealed, secret, and deceitful – perhaps as time itself? Are the rewind effect and the Uncanny mutually constitutive here?

VF: For this work, I do think so. The sensibility is literalized into the uneasy physical language of backwards motion. An outwardly incongruous condition accepted as familiar, as one does in a dream.  It is one of my ‘lighter’ pieces, almost a physical comedy at times, but it does get at the same root of my darker films, where the unease is spun out of mundane things, the stuff of nightmares. The Uncanny, I would argue, can be more sinister when hidden just beneath the ordinary. Most of my other films do not use 'rewind,' and instead rely on subtler things like settings and textures. My work often sets up the Uncanny through and within the familiar, in suburban and domestic scenes, while subjects remain cold and distant. The artist, Daniel Bozhkov, recently said to me that my work makes him feel like someone is whispering in his ear from very far away--I liked that description very much. A recent body of work about memory uses the grain and texture of Super 8, doubling, blankness and erasure to imply warped time and space. These tools angle at a similar 'unheimlich' that I reached using the 'rewind effect,'  but in the case of The Lake House, it's more physical and bodily.

Still from Self-Portrait in Sweden, 2005, Super 8-millimeter film

Still from Self-Portrait in Sweden, 2005, Super 8-millimeter film

SS: What you are saying about your 16-mm work evokes Friederich Kittler's argument that the figure of doubling and the Doppelgänger theme must be understood in relation to the film medium specifically. Through its techniques of mechanical likeness and mirroring of the world in movement, the film medium in his view fully realized the reality doubling that was prefigured in German literary Romanticism.[1]

VF: That makes a lot of sense to me, seeing our reality's own double in cinema, because it was developed to simulate our experience of reality. The camera has a history of being regarded as an extension of our bodies (for example, the 'kino-eye' of Vertov), and cinematic precursors, like panoramas and dioramas, mimicked reality as seen from our eyes. I also just read about a study on the rhythm of film editing increasingly over the years echoing our brainwave patterns. Human vision itself is merged from a 'doubled' view of our two eyes into one seemingly whole perspective, represented in cinema. Perhaps the phenomenology at play here produces a subconscious anxiety of the double. The idea of a parallel reality is tied to the inexplicable double and differing temporalities: they are alternate universes, other versions of ourselves, extra dimensions that are slightly off. Film, a natural candidate to reflect the unsettling mirroring of the psyche, is the language of the double, and a double itself.

Still from Convergence: Part II, 2004, 16-millimeter film

I am really fascinated with those ideas, and have been since I was a kid. The first short I ever made was a black-and-white, looping 16-millimeter film called, 'The Double,' where the protagonist's other self keeps ringing the bell and replacing him in bed. But it wasn't until grad school that I saw these ideas in films. When I started the MFA program at CalArts, film classes were held in the theater on campus where anyone could stop in and see what was being projected. I am so grateful for that, as it was my first real exposure to experimental cinema. During those years I saw films that have become very important to me, like Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon, Ingmar Bergman's Persona, Robert Altman's 3 Women, Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclisse--among others.

Still from Self-Portrait at Home, 2009, 16-millimeter film

Still from Self-Portrait in White, 2009, 16-millimeter film

Still from Self-Portrait in White, 2009, 16-millimeter film

SS: In dictionaries, the term ‘rewind’ is generally defined as ‘to wind something back’ and exemplified with film or video. An implication is that there could be no rewinding without the existence of these media. What philosopher Stanely Cavell has called the automatism – the self-acting processes – of photographic media is in a sense implied here. In Cavell's anti-essentialist understanding of what a medium is, automatism refers both to the material of aesthetic creation and the result of artistic practice. A successful work of art thus reinvents its medium: "One might say that the task is no longer to produce another instance of an art but a new medium within it," Cavell states.[2] As D. N. Rodowick has pointed out, Cavell’s understanding of the self-acting potential of photographic media thereby limits subjectivity and creative agency on behalf of the artist.[3] One could thus ask who performs the rewinding – you as an artist or the mediums you work with? Differently put: To what extent is your own work with film and video informed by the different technical possibilities enabled and performed by them?

VF: That's an interesting point. It's the Modernist's purity of medium combined with a sci-fi vision of technology supplanting the artist! Video is a slick medium that makes ‘rewind’ not only easy, but embeds that possibility in its very texture. Its malleability is an inherent condition to video, making it the logical medium for The Lake House project. I thought that video can be closer to 'real time' than film, which can have a 'distanced' feeling. That immediacy can make an effect like a 'rewind' seem like second nature and not like a dream. I like to use film when there is a real purpose for it, when the mere act of choosing to shoot with it speaks volumes. For example, Super 8 has indelible associations with home movies of a certain era--hence, its use in my projects dealing with memory. In tune with Walter Benjamin's belief that a medium's biggest potential resides at the moments of its birth and obsolescence, I think film has been in a slow, languid and beautiful death. At the same time, film is being reborn in art contexts. Its dialectical status as an outmoded, insistently analog vehicle has infused it with a new power, the mere use of which can inform content. I think that is just wonderful.

Still from O Jackie, 2005, Super 8-millimeter

SS: What you are saying about the «real time» experience of video finds resonance in Italian philospoher Maurizio Lazzarato’s «video philiosophy». Control of time has, in his view, become the most central condition for controlling social production and reproduction under advanced capitalism (so-called ‘postfordism’). Based on Henri Bergson's notion of «splitting time» between perception and memory, Lazzarato finds in video technology's  capacity for live recording and replaying (which allows for a simultaneity between perception and memory, seen as recording and replaying) the potential for liberation from what he sees as the rigorous «time control» of mass media capitalism. Video instead establishes contact with creative time and social potentiality.[4] Are you in a similar direction interested in creating a sense of temporality that runs counter to the "productive" time of massmedia? Do you see your project as political?

VF: Like with our strict notions of time or gender, for example, we can only hope to define symptoms of cultural conditioning we accept as universal truths. If art can open us up for an instant to consider something outside of what we know, that, in my eyes, is a successful piece. I come at my projects very politically, but my approach can be rather oblique. I think a lot of my work concerns the experience of difference--not limited to, but encompassing my own. My visual language uses a familiar palette close to, but not quite, a traditional Hollywood narrative and a generic setting of upper class, white suburbia.

SS: We have been talking extensively about the ontology of different moving image media, their distinct ways of configuring time as related to their technological specificity. But what about conventions: What role does narrative play in your work? Your work always contains characters and settings that give promise of narrative that is never fulfilled, only hinted at.

VF: Linear, traditional narrative is a medium that symbolizes the forward march of time, an ‘anchor’ from which time can be rendered strange. We know and understand narrative as a familiar visual language, so when it strays away from what is expected, we pay attention. Part of that 'straying,' for me, comes with fragmentation, loops, stillness and slowing down, silence. Many of my films are as still as photographs. Lately I have been thinking a lot about time and narrative as a medium in non-moving image work, embedded in painting and drawing...perhaps that's as slow as narrative gets: time as compressed the meticulous graphite drawings of Vija Celmins, or fragmented ideas of narrative in, say, the paintings of Peter Doig, or stillness in Allan McCollum's surrogates.

Detail from Untitled, 2009, graphite on paper

Detail from Untitled, 2009, graphite on paper

Detail from Untitled, 2009, graphite on paper

SS: Artist Douglas Gordon has stated that we live in a ‘replay culture’ instigated by the VCR and its capacity for slow-motion, freeze-framing, and repetition.[5] You need to rewind to replay. What is the relationship between rewind and replay, as you see it?

VF: The world of sports familiarized us to instant replay, a feeling that we could dissect time to examine and slow it down--but it unfurls again in the replay. Rewind, on the other hand, is a powerful act, a feeling of playing god. Blood flows back into bodies and the dead come to life. We plunge into the past with the seductive idea of regaining what we lost, be it youth, love, and so forth--even with the fantasy of circumventing death and mortality. This desire surfaces from our cultural consciousness all the time in popular films like 'Groundhog Day' or 'Sliding Doors,' 'Back to the Future' or any movie with time travel. I have been fascinated with 'rewind' because of this melancholic longing for something gone; even knowing that no 'rewind' can ever bring it back does not stop us from trying.

A video piece I made in 2005, Deuce, is a testament to an impotent kind of 'rewind', an ode to fate and an exercise in futility.  It films, then restages an actual tennis match, superimposed on top of the original.  No matter how closely it tries to follow the original, the same game cannot be played again, yet the outcome is always the same. It's like the woman in Convergence merging into her past/future without choice or control. We might have the power of 'instant replay,' of manipulating one representation of reality in film, but it still has no real impact; we will still age and are still mortal. In a way, it's fatalistic, but then the fact that it cannot be restaged exactly the same, the unique iterations and an opening up of time, is ultimately, for me, liberating.

Clip of Deuce, 2005, 8-minute continuous loop, digital video projection

SS: I think that your work also rewinds, so to speak, in another sense. This has to do with the sense of past time conveyed through your themes and characters, such as the female characters that appear alienated, afflicted, and sometimes misplaced, and the recurring figure of doubling and the double. While situated in contemporary environments, these elements suggest an interest in, respectively, modernist concerns relating to alienation and a sense of powerlessness in the world (at least as explored in cinema, as argued for instance by Robert Kolker in his book A Cinema of Loneliness) and late 19th century culture's preoccupation with the reconfiguration and mirroring of the world brought about by mechanical media.[6] What are your influences and what are you inspired by?

VF: I am influenced by a constellation of film and images, ranging from Surrealists (René Magritte, Luis Buñuel and Maya Deren, particularly) to cinema auteurs (including those mentioned previously, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Antonioni, and also Alain Resnais, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Todd Haynes, Guy Maddin, Chris Marker), the uniformity of runway shows and Busby Berkeley to Bonwit-Teller window displays from the 60s, the sensibilities of painters Gerhard Richter and Edouard Vuillard, the films of Jack Goldstein, to name a few.

SS: What are you working on now? 

VF: I returned this winter from a trip to China, thanks to an Art Matters Foundation Grant. Filming in China was a definite switch of gears!  The trip was really important for me. I think it represents something of a shift in my considerations of portraiture, ethnography and nationality. I'm currently in the thick of it, editing Super 8 and video footage. I also have plans to shoot a 16-millimeter piece in L.A. that will become an installation, and prepare for a longer, feature-length film, hopefully next year.

Still from Self-Portrait in Hollywood, 2007 and 2009, Super 8-millimeter film

Still from Self-Portrait in Hollywood, 2007 and 2009, Super 8-millimeter film

[1] Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999), 115–183.

[2] Cavell, Stanley. “Automatism” in Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), 103.

[3] Rodowick, D. N. The Virtual Life of Film (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 2007), 43.

[4] Lazzarato, Maurizio. “Video Technology, Flows and Real Time” in Stian Grøgaard et. al., An Eye for Time: On Video, Art and Reality (Oslo: Unipax, 2004), 60–87.

[5] Gordon quoted in Hansen, Mark. ”The Time of Affect, or Bearing Witness to Life”.  Critical Inquiry, vol. 30, Spring, 2004, 584–626.

[6] Kolker, Robert. A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2000).

Susanne Ø. Sæther is a curator, researcher and writer who lives and works in Oslo. Sæther holds a Ph.D. in media studies from The University of Oslo, with a dissertation titled The Aesthetics of Sampling: Engaging the Media in Recent Video Art (2009), and is an alumn from the Whitney Independent Study Program (ISP), New York (2005/2006). She has curated several exhibitions with camera and media based art, among them Norwegian Documentary Photography (Henie Onstad Art Center, Norway, 2009), Comme Au Cinema. The Cinematic as Method and Metaphor (The Photographers Gallery, Oslo, 2008) and Ghost in the Machine (Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, 2008). Among her latest publications are ”The Aesthetics of the Archive” in 80 Million Pictures (ed. Ekeberg og Lund, 2008), ”The belief in the image” in Bjørka: Dark Room Images (ed. Karianne Kampevold Sætre, 2008), and "Between the Hyperrepresentational and the Hyperreal. A sampling sensibility?" in The State of the Real. Aesthetics in the Digital Age (ed. Sutton, Brind and McKenzie, 2007). She has published numerous articles nationally and internationally on contemporary visual culture ranging from Hollywood cinema to video art.

Victoria Fu (b. Los Angeles) received her BA in Art from Stanford and MFA from CalArts. Her film and video installations have been exhibited at De Appel in Amsterdam, Sala Rekalde in Bilbao, Savannah College of Art, Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, REDCAT at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, Seoul National University in Korea, El Museo de la Ciudad in Quito, Frederieke Taylor Gallery and CRG Gallery in New York, Fundación Sa Nostra in Palma de Mallorca, Ballhaus Ost and General Public in Berlin. Recipient of a Borchard Foundation Fellowship and an Art Matters Foundation Grant, she has also worked on publications for the Centre Pompidou, Musée d'Orsay, USC Fisher Gallery, Otis College of Art+Design and Wildenstein Research Institute. She was a 2005/2006 participant of the Whitney Independent Study Program and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and was Artist-in-Residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in 2007. Co-founder of the film/video curatorial organization, ART OFFICE (, she lives and works in Brooklyn.