Toddler Games: Inner Outer Space and That season: Autoficción

Laida Lertxundi
Laida Lertxundi

Toddler Games: Inner Outer Space

It was the second pandemic winter. I had just received a grant to make a three-channel installation, and I was making myself crazy trying to make it work. The installation was made up of a big video projection, a smaller, more luminous 16mm film projection, and a monitor placed slightly in front of both.  I borrowed this massive monitor from the Koldo Mitxelena center and transported it back to my studio in a baby stroller in the pouring rain. 

What are these things that we make because we said we would, but that ultimately are not what we want to be making?

In order to help me conceptualize the edits between the three different channels, I made a diorama of the installation using cardboard and tiny printed film stills. I realized that I loved this in-between stage of the project much more than the final work, and that maybe desire, for me, is in diversion, doing what I am not supposed to be doing. So I filmed the diorama on a roll of color 16mm film, and called this miniature work Teatrillo, which can mean literally “little theater” but also “faking it,” like when children exaggerate for their parents in order to get what they want. 

The material for the project came from a previous collaboration with the dancers Gry Kipperberg and Francesco Svcavetta in Norway and Sweden titled Under the Nothing Night during the previous winter, a live performance in which Gry performed solo. I had used a series of background images from the cartoon David el Gnomo. For me, this gesture was entirely the product of the confinement during quarantine, feelings of desiring nature, of being a landscape filmmaker stuck in an apartment, working from home, teaching online. My daughter was very young then, nearly two-and-a-half, and we had, during the confinement, begun to allow her some “screen time.” We chose David el Gnomo because its beautiful hand-painted environments seemed like something we could live with in the claustrophobic atmosphere of our apartment. Later I began a series of engravings and prints using the images from David el Gnomo collaged with postpartum drawings that I made from photographs. 

During the quarantine I had stolen some images of the nearby sea (“non-essential” outdoor activities had not been allowed at that time, so these images felt very much stolen). After confinement restrictions were lifted, I met with Helena and Mariana in my studio in early May, 2020, and we projected those images, along with those from David el Gnomo, onto their bodies as they attempted to touch this seascape, their bodies painted with images of water. The music playing is “I Am” by the Complex; it’s a song about being a hillside, a pebble on the shore, and not differentiating oneself with one’s surroundings. 

By the winter of the second wave of the pandemic, my partner Ren Ebel and I had started devising these exercises for performers, sound and camera. We were looking for ways to give form to this ecstatic feeling of reencountering the world, a sensitivity that formed a kind of augmented reality. The exercises were a way of mediating between inner and outer experience, but in a playful way, similar to the toddler games and activities we invented constantly for our daughter during confinement. These children’s games also embodied a kind of conceptual art  specific to California — full of humor, unserious, but profound. 

I filmed again with Helena and Mariana, and this time they stood facing each other on the stairs above the plaza at San Telmo, the sea behind them. We filmed them doing an exercise called “telepathic conversation,” in which two people take turns sending phrases and replies using only their minds, while also writing down everything they “send” and “receive.” These written inner conversations later became subtitles in the edit. There’s a moment during the conversation when Helena says , telepathically, “I feel sad.” Every time I see this in the film, I feel that I know exactly what she means. I had things to feel sad about: how the shadow of heredity can threaten to swallow you, the difficulties of parenting with freedom, a work project that had, at first, seemed utopian but was revealing itself to be hell. I felt shaky, uncertain about my return to my homeland after living so long in the USA. It felt like all I could do was dialectically sew myself into the fabric of my surroundings by filming them. Transforming these locations into materials in my studio was a way of changing my relationship to them. The result might be a kind of feminist phenomenology where critique, memoir and formal experimentation are indistinguishable. 

By the time of the telepathic conversation, Helena had chopped her hair off since the last time we filmed. This always seems to happen during the course of making my films, as if to prove that my work can never rely on continuity. The verisimilitude of fiction conflicts too much with reality. 

We devised other exercises in mount Ulia with Unai and his children, where one person is brought blind-folded to a scenic place, and then reacts to the view on camera as the blindfold is removed. Then, overlooking the sea from the mountaintop,  we made drawings of an imagined landscape, like inner maps. Helena hummed a Portuguese lullaby which accompanies these drawings in the film. 

This trio or triptych ultimately became a single film titled Inner Outer Space. I think of the title, like the three sections, as being disorienting in terms of beginnings, middles and ends. It's a scramble, a puzzle, another kind of game.

Here are some other puzzles: How can you be a woman artist without striving to react against or be made sense of by men, fathers, brothers, partners and bosses? What is it to live and work as both a parent and a desiring subject, but not as a martyr? How do you build and nurture a family or community without losing yourself in it? 

That Season: Autoficción

I was folded like a pollo desplumado (featherless chicken) recovering from a shocking and unintelligible birthing experience. I got a phone call asking if I’d like to come to New Zealand to be an artist-in-residence at the University of Auckland and work on a film, all expenses paid. YES was my resounding answer.

I was living in Los Angeles. After many years as a single artist, teaching part-time with the freedom to make my work, a new reality was now setting in. It was the Trump era. Medical aid, already meager under Obamacare, was eroding. Rent prices were now New York prices, and it was impossible to afford renting a studio in addition to a home. I became a mother in the middle of this. I paid to become a mother. On top of unbelievable amounts given to private insurance, and the expenses of checkups during pregnancy, we needed to borrow money because we made a human being.

Everyday life soon became driving around the city with a baby, paying to enter private parks or weird office buildings converted into indoor playrooms. Did no one else think this system was hostile?

I enlisted my mom for the New Zealand adventure. She claims she only went because I looked so broken that she couldn’t say no. But I remembered her inspecting the stickers on kiwis, saying the words las antipodas with the mild longing of a proletariat girl who never imagined traveling so far. And so we went. In New Zealand we found green parks, a life of walking, a politically conscious art community, beautiful music, and strong women artists who did not hide their strengths. My mom helped with the domestic work so I could make art. I missed my partner Ren, who was absorbed by his masters program back in Los Angeles, gone from us in more ways than one. Christina C. Nguyen came to visit and helped shoot some film. I most remember wonderful conversations, the kind that seem in danger of extinction.The most valuable materials I collected on my trip were the sounds of indigenous birds on the island of Tiritiri Matangi, a protected bird kingdom.

I returned to California to teach. I had a pumping room, and some other moms in the faculty looking out for me, helping me with my transition, patching up the gaps of an inhumane system. I would teach and take breaks to pump. I was a hormonal soup. I would sometimes think of my students as babies. At the end of the semester I received (for the first time since I began teaching) student feedback calling me “sweet.” With breasts painfully swollen, I would rush home to feed. A cop once pulled me over for speeding.

We started making this film. The working title was “Daytime Noir” because a crime was happening in plain sight, during the day, bodies being dragged across the sidewalk. We interviewed women on camera. The content of these interviews was personal but not necessarily true, an homage to Soft Fiction by Chick strand. Strand had lived among these streets and valleys and made films with similar equipment. Agnès Varda was also a constant influence. Speaking on camera candidly, with intimacy and comfort, these women opened up as we made the film together. Bert Hoover and Ren played music in Bert’s studio and we filmed and recorded it with expired film that another CalArts filmmaker had given me in order to make room in her freezer for breastmilk. I had liked this anecdote, a kind of material riddle about negotiating work and motherhood. The film was so faded it was almost insensitive to light.

Sexism, racism, and cynicism was in the air, and America’s particular oppressions and hypocrisies were on display for all to see. We filmed at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade in Leimert Park. There were cops in the parade, smiling and waving from their motorcycles. It felt incongruous, and being able to film them in that context was like a strange reordering of the world.

My friend Maite Muñoz Iglesias appears in the film, trying to chronicle the exact moment she is in, the broken-openness of early motherhood, her child Greta in her arms. They walk and breastfeed around Echo Park, while the sound of the New Zealand birds accompany them. The birds are heard throughout the film when women are speaking, which tweaks the realism of the interviews, opening a subconscious state, el sueño de la razón (the sleep of reason).

We were in distress. One of us had just had an abortion, another had lived a version of Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, one had abandoned their partner of 18 years, another chose not to share. We were trying to land somewhere within ourselves, amidst the anxious panic and exhaustion of 2019.

After my time in New Zealand, I became aware that I would never readjust to life in Los Angeles. I loved the people, the art and the landscape, but I felt I was being ejected by a broken system, spending all of my time and money feeding a machine that did not support me. I felt that I had pulled up my roots and was now carrying them around with me.

We framed sections of bodies using yellow paper that trembled in the wind (a poor man’s matte job). Nazli Dincel came to do a show at REDCAT, and we were talking about antidepressants taking away her libido. We filmed her collapsed on the couch at Rocío Mesa’s house, unable to get up. Finally she gets off the couch, only to collapse again in the backyard.

I started subletting my studio to a younger artist, and one day her friend casually asked me, “Now that you are leaving, are you just going to be a mom?” I finished the film, had it processed and scanned, did the color with C. Diaz and fled for Spain with my family and my hard drives.

I say my films are “made with…” because there is no cast or crew. Everyone involved in the film makes it together, sometimes appearing in front of the camera, sometimes working behind it, without a specialization of roles. If there is something concrete I am trying to get at it with my films, it is this way of working. I want to take the opportunity to thank every person who has ever helped me make a film, and those who have shown them or written about them. Including CCCB where I think I have shown almost the entirety of my work and where at age 19 they gave me the opportunity to work as a film and vídeo curator, position that I held for 10 years. 

* A version of the second part of this text appeared in MUBI notebook in 2021.

By Laida Lertxundi