Sheepwoman live film

Sheepwoman is a live audiovisual performance piece by Sue-C and Laetitia Sonami. Sue-C is a visual artist whose work mixes video and laptop performance with traditional media like watercolor and drawing. Laetitia Sonami is an experimental musician and composer, who created her own unique performance tool to sculpt soundscapes in real time: the Lady’s Glove. Hence, in Sheepwoman Sue performed the majority of the visual elements of the piece, while Laetitia was in charge of the sounds and music (although there was some overlap between the two artists). I had the opportunity to see two consecutive performances of Sheepwoman at the Resonant Forms festival at the LACE gallery in Los Angeles.

Sheepwoman opens up for discussion many relevant questions in the context of live laptop performance. First of all, I’ll start by noting that Sheepwoman was introduced as a “live film”. There is a seemingly equivalent term that has been growing in popularity lately, that of “live cinema”. A broad definition of live cinema proposed by Mia Makela is “the simultaneous creation of sound and image in real time by sonic and visual artists who collaborate on equal terms and with elaborate concepts”. I tend to shy away from definitions and their attempt to tabulate and digest artworks with accepted labels. On top of that, Sheepwoman took place at a venue where experimental and avant-garde (wherever that word means today) works have been exhibited since the late 70’s. Isn’t one of the goals of experimental art to defy conventions and definitions? Nonetheless, I began this discussion precisely with the issue of defining the piece because I think that the choice of the term “live film”, instead of the more popular “live cinema” or even “audiovisual peformance”, was very conscious and relevant to discuss the nature of the piece.

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If we ask ourselves what are the physical spaces required to the (non-live) construction of a film, the following list might suffice in most of the situations: a set or stage where the action is shot with a camera and sounds are recorded, the editing room where the different scenes are combined together into a linear montage, and the projection screen (plus the surrounding space for the audience ) where the film is finally shown.

Sheepwoman in fact retains all these traditional elements: there is a miniature set where the camera moves around and the actual, physical action takes place and its shot. The editing room is now the computer, where the digitalized filmed material is stored, combined and processed into a linear sequence of audio and video frames (adding perhaps some non-live materials). Finally, the images are projected onto the screen and sounds played back through the speakers in the room where the audience has gathered to see the piece.

The nature and scale of these elements (sets, sound stage, editing room, projection screen) have changed, but their roles remain the same. There is one key difference, though, which justifies the term “live film”: all these elements exist in the same space and are used simultaneously, as opposed to conventional film where they occur sequentially one after the other (shooting on the sets during the production phase, followed by post-production editing and finally, projection at the movie theater). These considerations lead to the following definition of live film:

“Live film is a form of cinema where the sets and sound stage, editing room and projection screen share the same space and time.”

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This proposed definition does not just restates the obvious, but it tries to re-interpret traditional filmmaking concepts by confronting with ideas of simultaneity and spacial co-existence. The digital doesn’t have a central role in terms of the building blocks of what live film is or could be, but it constitutes nonetheless the enabling technology that allows for this simultaneity of shooting, editing and projection: the digital real-time.

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This idea of temporal and spacial co-existence of the sets and the projection screen connects with a concept that I discussed earlier, that of closed vs open in-betweeness, or liminality. Both the sets and the screen inhabit the same place but are not the same,  in the sense that the projection doesn’t occur on the set like in many digital dance performances, where even the body of the dancers become the screen. The screen and the sets are clearly delimited, and hence the liminality is determined by the space between them. More importantly, these gap is not hidden from the audience, on the contrary it becomes a very important part of the piece, and the gaze moving back and forth between the screen and the “real” object being filmed creates dialogical and narrative layers which I think are unique to this art form.

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There is another element which I found extremely important in Sheepwoman and would like to explore in my own pieces, and it is the role of the laptop performer. While during most of the performance both Sue and Laetitia were sitting in front of their tools and controls, Sue used a flashlight to illuminate parts of the set to create very dramatic moments at certain points during the piece. Given the size and distribution of the elements on the set, this action was much more physically involved, requiring her to sit on the table and move around the set structures. Sue become then much more visible to the audience, abandoning the usual, protected role of a laptop performer.

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I felt that, in a strange way, she turned into an actor in the movie, connected to the ongoing narrative not only by the effects her actions with the flashlights created on the screen, but as some character looking for some lost object in the space conveyed by the sets.

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I think that this type of physical involvements and actions create new performative and narrative possibilities that extend the limits of live cinema and live film into more theatrical expressions.

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