Larissa Sansour is an artist working across video, photography, sculpture and installation, often to create political artworks that explore life in Palestine. Our cover image for Vector No. 287 is taken from her recent film installation, ‘In the Future, they Ate from the Finest Porcelain’, a collaboration with the artist Søren Lind.
An interview with Larissa Sansour first appeared in the same issue, Spring 2018.
Vector: In an interview for “Reorient”, you talk about how your piece uses SF to address the ongoing trauma that is both national and personal. The film swerves away from a documentary approach, yet you leave room for it to be interpreted as a realistic narrative by using a framing device common to 19th and early 20th century SF. It is possible to imagine our world just off screen. On the soundtrack we hear a conversation between a woman and her therapist – they can be in the here‑and‑now; the visual narrative of the film can be interpreted to describe an imaginary world of the patient’s mind, her dreams, her hopes, fears and fantasies. Was this ambiguity intentional? Was there a decision not to commit fully to science fiction?
Larissa Sansour: Working with science fiction offers a lot of malleability in how I choose to comment on present day issues. There is a tendency when addressing heated or urgent political topics to fall into an already established and non-flexible discourse. One then generally has to accept the premise of the arguments that preceded your contribution. Science fiction helps me posit a new equation in which a new approach to can be formulated. So, the trauma, fear and fantasies are intended to occupy the blurry space between fantasy and reality and, like in most of my work, to question the basis of our understanding of what reality means. In In the Future They Ate From the Finest Porcelain, this focus is very much on historical narratives, and how much of that is really based on truth value.
The anachronism in the film is also very intentional. It is hard to talk about the Palestinian trauma without addressing several tenses. The Palestinian psyche seems to be planted in the catastrophic events of 1948 and is tied to a constant projection of the future, yet the present is in a constant limbo.
Vector: One of the reasons I was drawn to your film is that it uses science fiction to comment on science, archaeology in particular. The majority of narratives in SF about archaeology are associated with ‘limits to knowledge’ concerns: don’t go digging, you might find something dangerous! Your film interrogates archaeology as a discipline in an entirely new and more urgent way by considering the role of archaeology in the past and ongoing (neo)-colonialist projects around the world. The film problematises archaeology as a tool for ‘projecting a state into the past,’ ‘galvanising public sentiment’ and ‘shaping national imagination’ according to the dominant discourse. Why did you construct your critique of science around falsifying evidence, rather than other shortcomings such as power, sovereignty, and politicisation? For example, if marginalisation persists in your fictional universe there may be no possibility (or funding) for intended future archaeologists both to discover the planted evidence and to operationalise to support a territorial claim – power is a prerequisite for both.
Larissa Sansour: Although the critique of scientific method is very present in the film, the instrumentalisation of archaeology in particular, the main focus is the political and social implications of narrative disadvantage. This results in the protagonist’s radical attempt to flip the power balance by tampering with a discipline historically instrumental for nation-building in the region. Resorting to falsifying archaeological evidence, and projecting the potential impact of this act hundreds of years into the future, are quite radical measures to take and scopes to accept, and this is intended to expose the importance of controlling narrative. While the fictional protagonist’s project may appear utopian and hopeful, albeit possibly delusional, with her hoping to cause a historical intervention and somehow even out the playing field for future political discourse, the film’s underlying intention is possibly a bit more destructive: exposing and dismantling core mechanisms supporting a colonialist-nationalist project. By highlighting archaeology as instrumentalised, its findings pairing up with religion, folklore, myth and fiction to reinforce and strengthen a territorial claim, bypassing all legal standards for settling land disputes in the process, the critique of the scientific method does naturally touch upon its subjugation to politics and power. In the process, scientific method shows its vulnerability to politicised hijackings. Archaeology usually digs first and concludes later, yet in the film, the scientific process is reversed, with the narrative to confirm established prior to the excavation of the artefacts to confirm it.
Vector: You imply in the Reorient interview, and elsewhere, that SF as a genre is aspirational and universal, and that the more powerful states like the USA and the UK have used SF to dominate the public imaginary with their narratives, while marginalised groups are represented by documentaries, being seen through anthropological lenses. Could you extrapolate this beyond the example of Palestine?
Larissa Sansour: I think this is clear in a number of unbalanced power contingencies and of course can be applied to many colonial narratives and continues with a facelift in post-colonial times. This of course is also true when it comes to gender and the female representation in art and film throughout those practices. I think once you become the subject of a gaze, then your role as an active member in building or analysing those structures is immediately dismantled. It is a very disadvantaged position. I find that contextualising the Middle East in a sci-fi framework already subverts this hierarchy and allows for a more meaningful discussion to take place.
Vector: In a lot of SF, especially during the Golden Age, the imagination is stilted when it comes to envisioning cultural and social changes. Imagining interplanetary travel seems far easier than a future without sexism or other forms of discrimination. In your film, the conflicts involving land and identity persevere. The parable of Palestinian-Israeli conflict is projected hundreds of years into the future, intractable as ever, with a few spiked bones and porcelain thrown into its unsolved equation. Is there a space or need for Israeli/Palestinian utopias?
Larissa Sansour: Historically, Israel/Palestine has been a natural breeding ground for utopias and dystopias in equal measures, ranging from biblical doomsday tales to ideologically founded aspirations of statehood. As much as utopias are probably needed for nation building, my films rarely hold any utopian outlines or definitions, but tend to embrace a dystopian approach, suggesting that the apocalypse is the first stop on the road to an acceptable future. That’s something which doesn’t necessarily reflect my conviction, but does establish an at once ominous and polemical point.
Vector: One pseudo-utopian solution you imagine is the vertical Palestine of Nation Estate, where the nation is accommodated in one giant but ‘modern and comfortable’ skyscraper overlooking Jerusalem. It is a great satire of a two-state solution, in which Israel gets all the land except for one building. It reminded me of Platonov’s The Foundation Pit where the Communist state wants to house everyone together on one giant communal vertical paradise of a skyscraper. Were you aware of this reference or is it a coincidence? What other references from science fiction have influenced your artistic practice?
Larissa Sansour: That’s very interesting. I am embarrassed to say I was not aware of Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, but I see how it makes sense in relation to my own work. I was reading J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise when working on Nation Estate. A lot of Soviet writers, poets and artists had to use satire to criticise their authoritarian regime. I am very fond of Russian film and literature, and that, I think, has influenced my work. A lot of it has to do with finding a different language to address collective traumas with a heavy use of absurdity.
In my latest film, I was looking a lot at Stalker by Tarkovsky and they use of the endless corridor as one big metaphor. A Space Exodus heavily references Stanley Kubrik’s A Space Odyssey and the American lunar landing.
Central to the film are themes such as dealing with trauma and options for resistance. One interpretation is that the patient’s worldbuilding in your film is a form of therapy, of processing. Do you see art as a way to help Palestinians as a nation to process trauma? To what extent can art serve the resistance?
Palestinian identity is multi-layered and hard to define, especially if one considers the diaspora not only outside, but also inside Palestine. Striving for a home or a belonging becomes a goal and eventually a form of resistance. In my latest film, the lead figure takes on an overwhelmingly convoluted surreal scheme just to achieve a definition or a closer understanding of what that means. It underlines the difficulty encountered by Palestinians for self-determination and the outlandish ways that have to be followed in order for this simple human right to be achieved.
Vector: Your film is filled with women’s voices , and the focus is on women and their relationship to each other. Men appear as soldiers and (seemingly) scholars or philosophers and colonial officials. Can you talk about gender in your film?
Larissa Sansour: It is very important for me to have female voices and figures be central in my work. The female perspective is important in dismantling the given accepted structures that humanity has long lived with and that are of course often built by centuries of patriarchal thought and governing systems. Just like many elements in my work, the female figure becomes another post-structuralist tool for dismantling narratives.
Vector: Is the film also concerned with environment and climate change? There are no blue skies, no trees, no water – it rains porcelain. There is a deep well, but it is a well of grief. There are looming apocalyptic dust clouds. Is this a reference to climate change, and to drought and worsening water problems in the Middle East? Why is water absent from the film?
Larissa Sansour: Seeing as the film is about narrative and the impact of myth and fiction on anything from history to national identity, an early decision was to use a barren desert landscape as a recurring stage for the scenes and the arguments to unfold in. Using the desert with looming dark skies as a constant template, the aridness acts as a metaphor for a vacuum in with new narratives and histories can take shape. The film’s deep dark well is a hole of memories; it’s the reservoir of the protagonist’s traumas, a metaphor for her subconscious, if you will. The film deals with the psychology of the bereaved, personal and collective loss, and certainly, the environmental decline counts among these losses, with water resources restricted, agriculture suffering due to various mechanisms of occupation.
That said, there was never a conscious decision to avoid water. An early draft of the script included water scenes. But eventually, the only rain falling is made of porcelain, referencing the biblical plagues, just as the spaceships on the horizon do, looking like a futuristic locust swarm.
On a side note, this futuristic locust swarm was since turned into a suspended installation of 1,500 miniature spaceships and exhibited alongside the film and other related works.
Vector: You use collage as a technique in a manner reminiscent of other SF artists, for example Seana Gavin. In your work, collage elements include both historical figures and CGI. What guided your choices of the elements to include? What specific contradictions were you using collage technique to highlight?
Larissa Sansour: One of the starting points was a comprehensive photo archive of Palestinian life throughout the past centuries. Before the idea for a script emerged, the intention was to make a grand tableau vivant of a cross-temporal Palestinian street scene, with inhabitants from different decades and centuries coming together in one discretely animated frame, breathing life into the past and bridging a temporal gap. This idea stayed with us and made it into the script. As the protagonist’s actions are intended as a historical intervention, the future revisions she hopes to cause would effectively change the past. Using archive to illustrate the past undergoing revision not only seemed conceptually interesting, but also addresses the concept of archive per se. The film explores the impact of myth and fiction on fact and history, making archive and documentary malleable institutions, subjected to dominant narratives and political agendas.
Including archival imagery alongside futuristic CGI also highlights an important aspect of the Palestinian experience. Palestine is temporally suspended between past and future, between history and ambition, with the present reduced to a state of limbo, a transitional stage bridging the two others.
Vector: In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain concludes a trilogy. Are you working on something new at the moment?
Larissa Sansour: I am currently working on my first feature film, entitled In Vitro. It is a science fiction eco-disaster film set and partially shot in Bethlehem. The film accelerates a climate doomsday scenario already unfolding in present day Palestine. In a converted nuclear reactor under the biblical city of Bethlehem in Palestine, Dunia, the dying founder of a hi-tech orchard designed to reverse the effects on an eco-apocalypse, passes on instructions to her younger successor Alia. The aim is to cultivate a replica ecosystem and replant the healing soil above. Exploring classic sci-fi tropes such as apocalypse, human cloning, political and environmental critique, the film is also a nostalgic and dystopian portrait of the town of Bethlehem throughout the past century. We are currently in early development, but if things go according to plan, In Vitro should be completed late 2019.