Turbulence & Jouissance: An Interview with Sofia Theodore-Pierce

by Ruairí McCann

In her essay Écriture, Marguerite Duras describes the act of writing in terms that at first seem contradictory, and yet gradually the paradoxes begin to resonate. For her, writing is a way and formalisation of living, defined by words such as solitude and separation, for the writer is alone, apart from the world. And yet she taps into it but through a proxy that could be called art. She writes that writing peuple (populates) her life and that it necessitates an all-encompassing silence that is a silence corporel. Silence not as absence but as a body which then creates other bodies—including herself.

Sofia Theodore-Pierce not only evokes Duras explicitly, in their film Exterior Turbulence (2023) which takes its title and excerpts a scene from Duras’ 1976 film Baxter, Vera Baxter, but implicitly, on their own path. Their films are polyphonic expressions of the complexities and contradictions of identity and articulation, as an artist and as a human being. How people reveal themselves in what they say but also what they can’t say; through their relationship with others, themselves, their belongings, as they are, as they’re imagined to be and as they change with the tide of time.

Theodore-Pierce’s approach then is not monolithic, but one of collage. They stitch together subtly choreographed, expansive bricolages of new 16mm footage, old home video and audio tapes, found objects, written and spoken correspondence, confessional and poetic modes of address and performance. 

Other Tidal Effects (2022)

In an interview with Nō Studios, Theodore-Pierce raised their interest in building and burrowing into ‘micro-histories’, composed of all those small details and moments that would be swept aside if one’s conception of history is stuck on the grand, the unified and the easily comprehensible. For Theodore-Pierce, the detritus of people’s lives, their stray thoughts and observations, and how they coexist and change in concert with others are more revealing. Their cinema mixes together granulated biographies of themselves, family, friends and lovers,  recurring throughout almost all of their films but each time taking new shapes, arrangements and meanings. 

For instance, Exterior Turbulence is a film where the missives of lovers, the body of frequent collaborator and filmmaker Grace Mitchell, quotes from their favourite writers and the voice of their mother commingle. This soup conjures unexpected insights, such as the comparison, at one point explicit and other times implicit, of writing to sex. These two acts are often conceived as polar opposites. One is supposedly experience reflected, and mediated, and the other immediate, and unmediated, but Theodore-Pierce brings them together as constructed outlets of unexpected discovery and jouissance, physical and intellectual. 

Their films remind but ultimately contradict Hegel’s concept of the self as a dialectic between the home and the world, the private and the public, the individual and collective. For Hegel, these worlds influence each other but they are distinct at any one conscious moment. You can’t exist in both. Instead, you gain one at the expense of the other. Theodore-Pierce’s work in particular, and perhaps the notion of a personal cinema in general, is the imaginative, hand-crafted process of bridging these experiences, the process and the results of tethering the interior and exterior. For our inner and outer selves are furtive but fecund collaborators, or in other words, and as some cognitive theorists put it, human beings are most fully, truly sentient not when we’re siloed away in isolated reflection but when we’re communicating. By expressing ourselves outward we both actively reveal and create our inner lives too, and so Theodore-Pierce’s cinema is a mirror that reflects life as a complex parlay of writing and rewriting.

Over email, Sofia Theodore-Pierce and I discussed their work, familial and artistic influences, being a teaching artist, their approach to sound and more.

I love how precise your work is and yet how it draws from modes of expression which are intimate and casual, such as diaries, home videos, auditory and written correspondence. I also feel like these forms are often the vessels for our most formative, early creative experiences. With this in mind, I was wondering if you could talk about your relationship with art and art making when you were child? Did art play a significant part in your family life when you were growing up?

Thank you for noting the balance of precision and casual intimacy in my work! That’s a balance that’s really important for me to strike in diaristic or personal films. They are absolutely constructions, so every edit is very precise, but I love setting up room for accident and play in my filming and even to some extent in the edit. It keeps things breathing.

To your question, I was fortunate to grow up in a family that valued artistic play and improvisation. My parents certainly improvised in raising me, so everything always felt very spontaneous, but also full of care. My father is a self taught visual artist and my mother is a writer. They’re both very unconventional and creative people. They met at a movie theater in Cambridge called the Brattle Theater during a Sam Fuller double feature. My dad asked her out in the popcorn line. Growing up I wasn’t allowed to watch TV really, but my dad worked at an independent movie theater, so I watched a lot of films from an early age. My mom is a cinephile and a constant reader, like her mother was, and she passed that on to me. My paternal grandmother was also a printmaker and textile designer, so she taught me a visual language from when I was very little, making wood blocks and potato prints on her kitchen table. She was constantly making things with her hands. Some of her wallpapers appear in the background of Hear Me Sometimes and Other Tidal Effects.

Exterior Turbulence (2023)

I’m curious about the process through which you chose the many different forms and materials that swirl through your work. After watching Exterior Turbulence again, I was struck by the quote ‘I wish I could with words do what I do with materials. Imagine a dialogue, just put it down. Say it and then write it.’ It seems like for you, to make a film is not just an act of articulation but an articulation about articulation, where you emphasise how what is being expressed and the person expressing are transformed by the medium and changes within it. Perhaps using Exterior Turbulence as an example, I’m curious how you could go about assembling your fluctuating medium. 

That is a quote from the Diaries of Eva Hesse. What I love about that text is how it is an archive of living unresolved thought. It’s always a fraught privilege to have access to the diaries of other artists. Which is also a feeling I hope to evoke in the film. In part I relate to the quote because it draws a distinction and connection between sculpting with raw materials and working with words. They inform each other but are different processes. To me, filming itself is very fluid and physical. Sometimes I’m holding my breath during a difficult shot, and sometimes I’m exhaling with relief, releasing an audible sigh as I run the film out of the Bolex, but either way it’s an embodied experience. 

Writing on the other hand, while it’s an important part, is measured and quiet. It’s often me sitting alone in a room with my raw footage, cutting, rearranging, and taking breaks to read and trying to free the ideas that felt implicit in the act of shooting. I relate writing and editing in my process. I write in an instinctual way to gather ideas before I shoot, then I write more while I’m editing, and this is where the film really gets made. So yes, maybe all my films are actively about that act of working things out. Half translating an internal experience of living, and later thinking about what that means when it’s handed to an exterior audience. How the work is transformed through every step of that process is what I’m interested in, while holding onto some beauty throughout.  (As David Wojnoarowicz said, “Don’t ever give up on beauty.”) Collecting texts by other writers is also a part of that, because it’s a way of staying in touch with others, not getting entirely lost in my own personal means of articulation.

The title comes from the Marguerite Duras film Baxter, Vera Baxter which you excerpt. Duras would speak or write about the act of writing, as a complex psychological but also a deeply visceral experience, a process which exhausts and actively creates the writer as a mind and as a body. I feel like there’s a connection between this and the comparisons between writing and sex, creation and desire, made throughout the film. What is it about her work that interests you and feeds your own filmmaking?

I think part of what I appreciate about Duras, and many other of my patron saint artists, is that she’s a prickly figure. She’s openly messy and imperfect despite being brilliant. I think what she’s describing here is very much how I feel about the act of editing, which is to be unmade and remade by the work itself as you let it pass through you and wrestle with it. And yes, she’s a very visceral writer and filmmaker while also being controlled and deliberate. Her feature length work and novels feel so impressive to me, and I hope to make something eventually that plays with that kind of full on slowness and duration. I like having something to aspire to and that’s part of why I’m drawn to filmmakers like Duras and Chantal Akerman, who were both titans of craft and openly human. The interplay between sex/desire and exhaustion/depression is a central theme of Exterior Turbulence and how I think about artmaking. I think that’s present in both their bodies of work. Eating sugar naked in bed while thinking about sex and having writer’s block. That’s a great subject in my opinion. (Thinking here of Akerman’s Je Tu Il Elle.)

Duras also talked about how making films was an excuse for her to be in an active community, in order to combat loneliness. I think artmaking can be a very isolating activity, it requires being alone at times, but ultimately it opens you up to forming deep bonds through working closely with people–asking for help and feedback. Also, by sharing political convictions and hashing things out in dialogue. That’s something I really center in the way I construct my life as an artist. 

To the psychological and visceral, my recent films are grappling with translating my lived experience of epilepsy. What first stood out to me about Baxter, Vera Baxter is the way the audio functions. We hear a musical track that goes unacknowledged for a long time, so it exists in the space of hallucination or memory before it becomes diegetic, when Delphine Seyrig’s character speaks aloud about it. This is very much how I experience reality when I’m having an epileptic aura. Similarly, in India Song, the narration and dialogue is all occurring offscreen, out of time. It’s a move that really resonates with me not just formally but in my body.

Desire Path (2024)

I’m curious where teaching sits in this back and forth between more embodied and measured processes. Has working with students at Binghamton, for instance, changed your approach to your own filmmaking?

The first thing I’ll say is that I absolutely see teaching as one branch of who I am as an artist. On a good day, my teaching life and my creative life have a symbiotic relationship. I learn a lot by being in dialogue with my students at all levels. They help me stay agile and fresh in how I approach the medium. At Binghamton, where I started in the Fall [2023], I have had the privilege of teaching classes of my own design which are based on my own research methodologies. Designing classes like this is a creative process and I put a lot of myself into it. I also get a lot back when students respond to the circumstances I set up in my pedagogy. There is reciprocity there. I truly love my students. My syllabi tend to reflect the way I work in the studio, I create prompts and projects that give enough constraint to get started but have a million possible outcomes. I center experience in my classroom over end products. Of course I want them to do good work, but I think they will only get there through opportunities for pleasure and play.

I also want to acknowledge that there is a labor crisis in teaching Higher Ed in the US. Before I landed a coveted tenure track job I was adjuncting full time for less than a livable wage. Many of my friends still are. I did it because I was passionate about the craft. I feel teaching is a job I was meant to do, after working many other service jobs to sustain myself over the years. But that’s not right. Teachers at all levels should be fairly compensated for their commitment, not made to feel privileged for getting to teach. I also don’t want a future where all educators are either tremendously burdened by debt or else independently wealthy. We need to do better.

Barbara Hammer taught at Binghamton as a visiting artist in the ’80s. She wrote an essay that I share with my students called “The Artist as Teacher: Problems and Experiments.” In it she proposes that an artist should not have to teach and make art at the same time, they should be paid to take turns doing both throughout the year. Half on, half off. She’s not just talking about the occasional sabbatical either. This may sound like pure fantasy but we have to start dreaming. Just because someone is a good educator and enjoys it, doesn’t mean it always feels good for their practice or life outside the classroom. It’s a really radical essay and I think everyone should read it!

I think it would be nice to close with the subject of sound. Unlike many filmmakers, the sonic aspect of your filmmaking seems very considered and integral. For example, I’m thinking of the singing in Other Tidal Effects. It was the first of your films that I saw and I was really struck by how the song is dispersed and the use of delay significantly contributes to this evocation of a discombobulating, discontinuous experience. How early in your process do you start to think about how your film will sound? I’m curious about your thoughts on the relationship between sound and memory. It seems that in your work that sound is not only a potent trigger for memories but also as a representation of their absence and confusion. 

I want my films to feel generous to the audience without giving everything away. For me, the use of sound and poetics are a way to walk that line. While producing images was initially where I felt most confident as an artist, my audio choices tend to be the most revealing of my internal processes. I probably spend more time on sound than anything, though I love crafting an image cut. For example, in Other Tidal Effects, I really leaned into the idea of transforming language into a sonic experience. I did this with the letter that Grace is reading aloud, sometimes failing to read the handwriting, and the song from my mother’s childhood that she’s singing to me and translating in pieces. These voice moments are distorted and interrupted by a filter that mimics my EEG waves immediately after a seizure. They tell a different story through how they are sonically manipulated, while retaining some of the content of the original language. The snatches of decipherable words are significant, but I wanted to make them as much about sound as meaning throughout. I have had auras that are consistently triggered by hearing certain songs, so that has also been in the back of my mind while editing sound in recent years.  Every film I make takes a different sonic approach, and so the timing of when I think about sound varies. With Desire Path, I took the freedom to edit silently while listening to music, and then play with multiple possible soundscapes once I made a cut. Since that film is made up of appropriated scraps from my other films (including the one I’m working on now) it’s meant to evoke a sort of déjà vu effect eventually, especially when placed amongst my other films. I like the idea that the soundscape would be slightly different every time it screens, in the absence of a live performance.

In Exterior Turbulence there is a single track of a lightning storm in Wisconsin that plays out beneath everything else. (This is partly an homage to the Duras move I mentioned before.) So while the voices and other sound choices guide us across multiple time spaces, there is also an environment that is happening in real time. It was important to me to have those two ideas rubbing up against each other, that sound simultaneously grounds us and unmoors us. Sound traverses plains of time and space, it can act as a trigger for memory, yes, but it also pulls us into the present more than anything else. Today as I write this it’s the eve of a total solar eclipse, and the question I keep asking myself is not “what will it look like”, but what does an eclipse sound like?

In gratitude,

Ruairí McCann is an Irish writer, programmer, illustrator and musician, born and living in Belfast but raised in County Sligo. He’s co-editor of Ultra Dogme, a contributing editor to photogénie, and has contributed to aemiMUBI NotebookDocumentary MagazineFilm Hub NISight & Sound and Screen Slate, among others.

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