Tales of Violence and Friendship: A Conversation with Cecelia Condit

A shopping mall, a dead rat and your face juxtaposed on top of the decomposing body of your boyfriend’s ex girlfriend.

These are the images that media artist Cecelia Condit have engraved in our collective mind. Over the course of a few e-mails and brief facebook messages, Cecelia shared stories from her childhood and the influence they had on her work, the alliance that friendship can gift you with and words on her latest video, We Were Hardly More Than Children.

From the many aspects of your earlier works, I believe the most intriguing thing is your way of using humour in the face of danger. Would you say this is a mechanism of survival for the women in your narratives?

In my funniest video Possibly in Michigan (1983), I was wrestling with the scariest of scary stories. 

Humor was a way for me to put a distance between myself and these nightmares that ruled my world. I don’t remember trying to be funny, but I did laugh a lot with singer songwriter composer Karen Skladany whose Animal/Cannibal song is for me one of the wittiest songs I know, and simply defines Possibly in Michigan. I believe that in order to manage fears and own them, I needed to clarify the concept that “love shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg”. In the making of this film, I took from stories floating around my life. The microwave oven that exploded came word for word out of a newspaper. I met a woman who was dating a cannibal and didn’t know it. After a brutal rape, a friend dreamed that the rapist told her ‘You have two choices. One I will eat you now or two…’. My friend asked him ‘Why?’ and he responded in a dreamy voice ‘For love.’ I didn’t have to search far to find material for Possibly in Michigan. It was all around me. However, even with these mistaken adventures, one can survive. 

My very first video Beneath the Skin (1981), the precursor to Possibly in Michigan, is an actual murder story in which I was involved. The humor shows itself in my childlike sing-song speaking voice, and my innocent disbelieving that my boyfriend could have killed the other woman he was seeing. This almost common-place tabloid tale is wrapped around a dangerous conclusion at the end of the piece when I say “I dreamed that it was me and not her that he killed two years ago. But that’s another story…” Possibly in Michigan is that ‘other’ story. 

If it looks like I am playing a cavalier game with the macabre, I am not. I am creating a serious survivalist tale, a diarist protest against the violence thrust on women that is woven into the very air we breathe. Sometimes humor offers a peek through that fog of invisible brutality.

I remember reading an interview with you where you talk about your films as a place to explore the dark side of human nature. There’s a quote by Maggie Nelson that always comes to mind when I think of ‘Beneath the Skin’, where she stated that she wanted to ask a professor “whether women were somehow always already dead, or, conversely, had somehow not yet begun to exist.” You say, “I dreamed that it was me, not her, that he killed.” Do you believe that, in our society, it’s easier to deal with the absence of women than with their presence?

My family was borderline if not benignly negligent, allowing my sister and me to be exposed to intense sibling bullying. I have long had this vision of myself in my mother’s womb with my twin brother who was rough and resentful of my presence there beside him. This image of our pre-birth womb world haunts me, and feels more real than many of the childhood memories I carry around with me. Sometimes I think I still live as that absent outsider, in a place before words and images – a dream heavy place ruled by the unsettled emotional temperature of my mother’s body. It was there that I first found a naked, non-linear microcosm of society – not far from non-being, annihilation and death.

When Maggie Nelson asks “whether women were somehow always already dead, or conversely, had somehow not yet begun to exist”, I believe she is speaking in a language of dualities: a place where innocence is cruel, where rage is invisible, where the old are young, and where Death always has a seat at the table. In Beneath the Skin, the song G.I Joe that Karen Skladany and Alice Malloy wrote and performed goes, “You get killed, but we stay dead. That’s real life. No ideal life for me”. In Some Dark Place (2016), a very old woman fumbles with the image of complete forgetting, and in All About a Girl (2004), a child finds a dead rat, puts her in a pretty white party dress, and says “I am afraid to be me. Perhaps we could both be me. We’re like twins”.

My youngest sister had a dream that has haunted me for weeks. We stand on the edge of this great river we can’t cross. A voice, our voice, calls us from the other side and there we find ourselves looking back on the selves who we left behind. We wonder if their/our death is necessary for us to move forward. These days I miss that woman who stands there so bravely facing me across the river, but perhaps her absence is easier for me than her presence. In the space where my work overlaps with dreams, I worry that without my other self, I am not really alive.

Your body of work always feels sympathetic to secrets and transformations – collective dreams – just like fairy tales. Could you talk about the uncanny setting of your videos? The forest in ‘All About A Girl’ and ‘Oh, Rapunzel’, and the far from idyllic landscape found in ‘Pulling Up Roots’?

I have always been enticed by women’s collective dreams and how they relate to fairy tales and the dark woods where untamed memories live.  I have a respect for threadbare clothes, tangled hair, grimy ankles, and places where one lives underground so as not to awaken sleeping giants. I have lived in one of those places most of my life. Sometimes there are magical transformations one finds when one sneaks above ground – undetected, if only to label trees and battlefields.

Filming in open spaces is one of my favorite things to do. I can spend so much time inside editing that it is comforting for me to watch images of singing birds and landscapes that I’ve explored with my camera. It doesn’t matter if the woods are only blurred backgrounds with swinging dolls arms or a dead deer I happen across in a friend’s woods or my small unkept backyard where a girl finds a dead rat and future friend. The sense of the wild, its danger and unpredictability, is a force in my filmmaking. On the flip side, even parking lots and suburb shopping malls are significant to me.

I grew up in Philadelphia in an old house surrounded by woods and streams. A mile away was the Andorra Shopping Center which then contained only a drug store, library, and a grocery store. As a child, I treasured the weekly shopping trip that was so different from my forest home. I thought of it as a somewhat shabby place back then, but there were people, parking lots, a dumpster, and the possibility of buying something magical. In my most traditional fairy tale Oh Rapunzel (1996-2008 – created with Dick Blau), I explored the idea of the woods as a trap of my mother’s making. In Pulling Up Roots (2015), an older woman lives alone among crumbling ruins and abandoned buildings. She gathers up large plants as though they are memories she can’t understand. Half knowing that the safety she finds in this loneliness is just a pretend freedom in disguise, but half wild, she knows she can make this place her home.

Jack Hubanis, a film student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where I once taught, wrote this about my relationship with the natural world/unnatural world. “Cecelia treats nature as surreal… It makes sense considering she is covering such intense topics… she needs to find a communal space that will speak to everyone. Nowhere is there a more communal space than the only place we all have been, outside.” Outside is a place of connection for me. It connects me to our planet and to that world that is so meticulously being destroyed. 

The use of poetry-like songs – with many rhymes – is also relevant to your art. What do you enjoy about while writing and listening to the lyrics?

I think of my songs as poems. When I write the lyrics, I define the project. Their complex spaces further the narrative and support the visuals.  Over the years I have been fortunate to work with a number of wonderful composers/musicians, such as Christopher Burns and Paul Amitai, but it is the singer/songwriter/composer Karen Skladany, the composers Stephen Vogel and, most recently, Renato Umali, who I have worked with over several videos and through the years. Sometimes their music is so present and powerful, that my stories become simply a vehicle for their own brilliance.

Early on, I would start the videos by writing lyrics, finding singers and musicians to put them to music, but now I write the lyrics to the songs when I find that the story needs a pause or more irony or complexity. It is an entirely different way of working. One fulfills a need in a piece that is very formed. The other, with disregard to the narrative, is an emotional outpouring to which I am giving voice and needing to heal. 

Do you feel there is an alliance between women when face to face with the daily violence that we, they, are put through? And have you ever thought of your films as tales of endurance based on friendship?

I do think there is a profound alliance between women who have been through violence and injustice and that will be a strong theme in my next work. When Arthur threatens her friend Sharon, Janice comes to her rescue. Together they eat Arthur in a ritual of solidarity, community and friendship. One of the last scenes is of the naked Sharon and Janice smoking clove cigarettes and giving the dog tasty morsels of Arthur’s body. It is my manifesto to feminism, fearlessness and may society be damned. 

Playing the beautiful, long dark-haired Sharon in Possibly in Michigan, Jill Sands appears in my earliest pieces from 1981-1987. I call it my Jill Sands Trilogy. We have a friendship that has continued over decades. She saved me from a brutal nightmare of my own making, and still contributes significantly in many ways to my work. It is a friendship that began in 1981 when I spotted Jill at a gallery opening in Cleveland, Ohio. I approached her and said, “Hi, would you like to be in a video?” She replied, “Okay” and laughed.  

In my work, themes of endurance, but also discord, work in tandem with one another. In Not a Jealous Bone (1987), inspired by an old English fairy tale, an elderly woman kills her young mother over a magic bone that promises eternal life. In Little Spirits (2005), a girl explores the limits of possible cruelty, as she leads a friend deep into the woods, and abandons her there. It was inspired by how unkind academia can be and the hurt that one feels from being ghosted.

You said your latest film investigates an “epic tale of bloodshed as lived by two women on a perilous journey through a world that has little concern for their survival.” Regarding how private but pertinent the story is, how important it was to finish this piece for you? Could you tell us a little bit about the process?

We Were Hardly More Than Children (2019) is a freaky epic story of love and endurance, but also failed friendships and irresponsible responses from the medical community around a friend’s abortion. Over the years, I had relived that evening so many times in my mind that I believed that this project would be easy to make. That proved to be wrong.

I realized early on that the traumatizing trigger for me was ‘blood’.  I couldn’t film blood. It was hard for me to even say the word ‘blood’. However, the color red is throughout and I understand now that “There are somethings you just can’t recover from.” It seems that I have made a deeply personal, understated version of this really bloody night. I also included the line ‘There are somethings one can’t recover from.’  Do I really believe that? I’m taking it out!

Also, in the beginning, Diane Messinger (whose story is Lena’s story) felt uncomfortable having herself identified with the abortion. Later, having finished We Were Hardly More Than Children, Diane reconsidered and wanted the abortion to be known as her experience, so I went about making that clear. Diane and I both had to process this individually, in our own time, moving through vulnerability to a place based on the trust. 

Over the internet, we’ve talked about feeling exposed for sharing something so personal – like your films – with the world, and I’ve told you that I always find myself in your works and that I feel very close to them.

The internet is a great screening platform and bridges the gap between high art, low art, the private and public. It opens a door to people everywhere. My own intense internet experience began when an excerpt from Possibly in Michigan made the front page of Reddit in 2015. Then in the summer of 2019, sixteen-year old Vris Dillard uploaded a 20 second musical clip from Possibly in Michigan onto TikTok. It became part of a crazy viral phenomenon with thousands and thousands of performances lip syncing to Karen Skladany’s song “Oh no, no, no, no…silly”. Then YouTube kicked in recommending Possibly in Michigan to web surfers from all over the world. The number of “views” and “likes” has grown and my email became a connection to people I will never know. 

I find that some of these email letters can be touching, coming in waves – as though passed from friend to friend. Some of the emails are funny: “Would you be my grandmother?” All have been respectful and thoughtful, but with this enormous exposure, I have had a sense of vulnerability that is a bit unnerving. I try to cherish it. It seems for some people, my other short videos, are a place not just of death, but sanctuary. They write that if I can move through such difficult experiences, perhaps they can too. 

The internet is a curious platform for me to address violence against women, aging, memory, mothers, and the environment. Like a memoir, each piece exists as a record of my life beginning at age nineteen with my most recent work “We Were Hardly More Than Children”. I’d love to think that some viewers look at certain videos in full, but more likely they shop around, looking at 20 second bites of videos, and then settling into a video that has particular significance to their lives, watching it in total, and occasionally many times.

How do you feel about the importance of this sort of recognition and  exchange between the realm of women’s inner lives?

In a society that diminishes and marginalizes the voices of women, I am heartened by the courage of so many women artists who share their inner lives and truths. Movements like #metoo have been opening up new spaces for old stories, stories that are powerfully real, but have been ignored, dismissed, and suppressed. For me, these stories represent the fabric of our challenging times and need to be heard. Works by Maya Deren, Isak Dinesen, Angela Carter, Mary Lucier and Sylvia Wheeler have been instrumental in forming my earliest explorations into video art. Finding myself angrier than usual, I recently read a book by Soraya Chemaly called “Rage Becomes Her” that said that we must reclaim our anger, as anger is the “first line of defense against injustice.” We must all be aware that the ubiquitous game of ‘power over others’ should make us all angry and it can and must be stopped. ◆

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