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If You Want to Watch, You Can Watch: A Conversation with Multimedia Artist Heather Raquel Phillips

In Heather Raquel Phillips’ videos we are so very close. But we rarely get the full picture.

Instead, we sense our way. We feel what we are meant to know, despite, or because of, the ambiguity. It is familiar, yet private. We cannot, would not, transpose ourselves onto or into another’s moment. But we watch, transfixed, sometimes trapped up close, sometimes lingering, our desires holding us rapt. Eyes closed, a grimace, then a small smile, as someone takes an electric clipper to another’s head and shaves it clean. Eyes closed, relaxed, stroking hair to the lull of R&B. The gentle touch of a manicured hand against the neck, the other confidently guiding the razor along the scalp. They bend forward as the razor tickles the nape, moving with the grain of their body in response to another’s structured guidance. Tongues ecstatically licking lips, devouring in anticipatory delight. Bodies gleeful with expectation, awaiting their punishment.

Phillips, a mixed race artist living and working in Philadelphia, explores the intersections of race, class, gender & sexuality through the use of text, video, photo, and objects. In her filmic portraits, we absorb the intimacy of sensation, of indeterminate subjects touching themselves, and each other, in manners equally erotic and quotidian. We don’t always see their full faces. More so, we sense their pleasure, their care, in their gestures. We feel it. We get to feel it. It closes our eyes, tingles and stirs us. Sometimes unsettles. We hear it, in all its eerie strangeness, and the sound, so often, unnerves and hypnotizes.

Image: Portrait of Heather Raquel Phillips. Photo by Emerson Aniceto.

Image: Portrait of Heather Raquel Phillips. Photo by Emerson Aniceto.

This is Phillips’  invitation and tease. One is, we are, always party to another’s most personal moments, and our sharing in it, in extreme close up, somehow makes the private even more so. But it is, indisputably, the subject’s own, alone and together in a chosen family. Untouchable. Uninhabitable. Self-contained preparation, presentation, enactment, joy. The camera cuts to black.

In addition to creating artwork, Phillips is a lecturer of fine arts at The University of Pennsylvania, a member of the artist run gallery NAPOLEON, Ms. Philadelphia Leather 2017, and a 2017 recipient of The Leeway Foundation Art and Change Grant. She received her BFA from Tyler School of Art (2008) and her MFA from University of Pennsylvania (2016), where she was the recipient of the prestigious Toby Devon Lewis Fellowship and the Stuart Egnal Scholarship. She has recently exhibited at Mama Gallery (Los Angeles), the Ice Box Project Space, JOG and NAPOLEON in Philadelphia, BLAM Gallery (Brooklyn, NY), and Hyphen Gallery in D.C.  Her time-based work was recently featured in a month-long program at the Leather Archives & Museum.

In November I had the pleasure of engaging Heather in conversation about her films in front of a live audience, on the day that a month-long screening titled “Short Ones | Long Ones: Time Based Work by Heather Raquel Phillips” debuted at the Leather Archives & Museum.

This interview was edited for clarity and concision.

Kirin Wachter-Grene: First I would like to say, thank you to José Santiago Pérez for inviting us to be here and for curating and organizing this event, thank you to Chicago’s Leather Archives & Museum for hosting us, thank you for all of you being here on your Saturday, and mostly thank you to Heather for being here, and for these incredible films.

Heather, I would love if you could talk a bit about your use of sound in your films, because to me your use of sound is one of the most mesmerizing features of these films, particularly the use of sound in relation to the visuals, and how we’re experiencing that together.

Heather Raquel Phillips: Thank you all, too, for coming out, and to José for hosting, and to Kirin for being here. So, the sound is an interesting component to me. I just watched all of those videos in a theater for the first time, together, so it also made me kind of relate to them in a different way. When I first started making videos, being a child of the 80s and “I Want My MTV,” I was constantly in front of the television, mesmerized by music videos. So that’s what I kind of wanted to make, initially. I would put a track of music behind everything I made, without rights. So, it would always have to be changed, but that was how I was initially thinking about sound. But then I started sampling sounds that I was capturing while filming, strange sounds unrelated to the footage. I’d pull those sounds and transform them, loop them and tie them into royalty free sound clips I had begun to use.

I was beginning to make “Sextra Curricular Activity” and I asked a couple of my friends, who were experimental musicians, if they would create the sound for the piece. They were on board so I’d send clips of the film to them and say, “make something that you feel you’d like to experience as you see the visuals.” I would get these short tracks in return and lay them in. It allowed me to design the score by layering these different tracks. So, I use the pieces that they send me, the serendipitous film footage sounds, as well as grabbing bits of royalty free sound in order for there to be these micro layers; I want you to catch the small moment, I also want to create a sense of disorientation when you’re watching, a sense that things don’t always match up. Especially around words, my subjects’ words and lip movements are never fully aligned. Words people say don’t always match what they mean or actually feel, right? For instance, rhetoric, the covert, lies. So, that’s an important aspect of my films. Hearing it all continuously I realize how the sound kind of lulls you…

KWG: Absolutely.

HRP: I felt really relaxed after a few minutes. So, I think that the sounds coupled with the hand-held style that I use for the video gives you this violent, real time/witnessing and jerkiness, visually coupled with this aspect that almost soothes and keeps you in a dreamlike state…

KWG: Yes, soothing, and meditational. What effect are you intending with this disorientation?

HRP:  By utilizing these very different, almost opposing facets of sound and visual to work together, there is the possibility to be loud and quiet simultaneously. The loud aspect is attention grabbing, the quiet aspect holds the attention. In that respect, the viewer can settle into the films but can be continually jogged or jolted into a space that reminds you, “Hey, look at me! I’m important information, don’t miss this!”

KWG: Now I want to think about the visuals a bit more. I’m currently teaching a class called “Invisibility/Hypervisibility” and it’s about how Black writers and artists from the 19th century to the present are dealing with the twined problem of invisibility (a lack of representation for so long) and hypervisibility (an overabundance of attention on the basis of race). My students and I are interested in how visibility is not necessarily the “answer” to solve structural inequity or oppressive material conditions. But of course, that’s not all visibility can do, or should do. I’m curious if you can speak a bit about how you’re theorizing visibility in your work, or, if you’re not theorizing it, how are you thinking about how you represent race, sex, and gender in your films?

Image: Film still from "Thirst Trap" featuring actor Blackson leaning forward in preparation to serve his queen cake from a stainless steel cake carrier. Photo courtesy of Heather Raquel Phillips.

Image: Film still from “Thirst Trap” featuring actor Blackson leaning forward in preparation to serve his queen cake from a stainless steel cake carrier. Photo courtesy of Heather Raquel Phillips.

HRP: That’s a complex question. I think when I approach the films, and in particular the experimental narratives, what is most important to me, when I cast them, is that I get a large representation of different people and different bodies in those videos. Representation is very important. Seeing yourself, and being able to visualize yourself through the body of someone you physically identify with, is vital in the understanding that you too could assume that position. In media, a film, in positions that are powerful and sovereign, it’s very important. So many people go without. Not only do people go without, but when they do see themselves represented, they’re in some sort of negative space, reinforcing stereotypes and biases and systemic racism.

So, going in from that angle yes, I want to represent, I want to create visibility, but I don’t want to create visibility in a way that is asking anybody for permission to be there. Everybody that takes up space in my films is being celebrated and has a right to be there–anywhere, actually. That celebration is being shared with the viewer. I’m thinking about when I was filming a scene from “Thirst Trap”, and we were out in the park in South Philadelphia where I live. We had a Human Pup out there, [and] I was also in that scene. Me and my best friend were dressed in high camp and he said, “I love it, that people think that we’re acting because we’re out here with a camera. But we’re not acting! We’re being ourselves.” It was such a great moment for me to hear my friend expressing that they were just out there in the world being ridiculous and absurd and doing as they pleased. So many of the aspects of my characters come directly from the people that I’m using. Because I want [the characters] to be collaborative, so they can take up space in a very literal way like “let me show the world what I can be. All these layers and multitudes that are so often silenced.”

And that’s the straddle of either being invisible or people seeing parts of you that don’t represent you, or that you don’t want to be seen as.

KWG: Yeah, people using your representation for other agendas.

HRP: Well put. So yeah, getting all those people together in a space to say: “I’m here. I’m allowed to be here. And, if you want to watch, you can watch.” And on the other end of it there are the people watching who will see themselves and who will enjoy that reflection. There are also people watching who will see: this exists. This is not imaginary. This is not made up. It makes it grounded and solid. I’ve experienced both of those conversations when I’ve shown my films, which is invaluable to me.

Image: Film still from "Thirst Trap" featuring actors Weezy Carpino (on knees) and Monique Ligons (standing). Here we see Weezy feather dusting Monique in her opulent estate as she prepares for a special dinner date. Photo courtesy of Heather Raquel Phillips.

Image: Film still from “Thirst Trap” featuring actors Weezy Carpino (on knees) and Monique Ligons (standing). Here we see Weezy feather dusting Monique in her opulent estate as she prepares for a special dinner date. Photo courtesy of Heather Raquel Phillips.

KWG: Absolutely. Thank you for that answer. I think it’s so important what you’re saying about “I exist, and I’m not asking permission, and you can watch, or not.” That leads into the next thing I wanted to ask you which is about watching, and witnessing, and about the intimacy that assumes and the responsibility that entails. I’m curious if you can tell us a bit about what you allow your audience to see and how you allow your audience to see it. I’m interested in your framing; what you show and what you exclude from the frame. I’m interested in the moments when your camera is focused and when it goes out of focus, and I’m perhaps most intrigued by the moments when your camera cuts to black. What are you letting us see, and how?

HRP: When I filmed “Thirst Trap” I had access to an estate that I went into with a couple friends and filmed a scene. The owners (a friend of a friend) were very accommodating. But there was a point where they said “are you filming a porn?” [audience laughter]. And it was such a funny moment because now you’re asking me “where does it end?” It ends where the people I’m filming want it to end.

But that’s not even necessarily true. I do have control of that. Because it could go a little bit further, possibly. I think I know all the people that I film pretty well, and that I have a good idea of their boundaries. Being a person that has used a camera for many years, ethics is a conversation that is extremely important when talking about still images and moving images. That varies depending on who has the camera in hand; what are those ethical matters? What matters to you [the camera person]? And what matters to me is that I want to make every one of my actors proud of what they will see in the end result. That’s always been my purpose with my camera.

Now, using these moving images and allowing the witnessing, through the hand-held delivery, gives somewhat a voyeuristic glimpse into a life and a space. But, depending on who you are, it might also place you in the room with the characters in a way. The shakiness of the quality is real, it’s not slick film movement, we feel the body present. The focus that dips in and out—I love the moments where it blurs the visions and then brings you back and clicks the visual into focus as a way to sort of reinforce the importance of something, whether it be wine, the toes, whatever it may be, it is important to me if it is on camera.

Image: Film still from "Sextra Curricular Activity", featuring actor Jack W. Cooper. In this scene, Jack’s character receives a prank phone call while taking a hot soak in the tub and enjoying some light snacks. Photo courtesy of Heather Raquel Phillips.

Image: Film still from “Sextra Curricular Activity”, featuring actor Jack W. Cooper. In this scene, Jack’s character receives a prank phone call while taking a hot soak in the tub and enjoying some light snacks. Photo courtesy of Heather Raquel Phillips.

Most of the characters are based on some aspect of sexuality so, showing the viewer that, through cues and tropes and stereotypes, but only offering a little bit and then taking it away. That’s important. It leaves you in a space of desire. I personally don’t want all the details. When I’m watching something, when I’m investing in something, I don’t want all the details. I need that space to allow my brain to flex, and when I have somebody looking at my work, I want them to do the same. I want them to indulge in imagination and fantasy and desire. So, giving a little bit and then taking it back gives “just enough” and also keeps an investment in the character itself as well.

KWG: You’re describing one of my favorite aspects of your longer films, particularly in “Thirst Trap.” Just where I, as a viewer, am the most invested and held there by my desire, that’s where the camera cuts to black. But one last thing that I want to ask you is about the space that we’re in right now. What does it mean to you to share your work publicly here at Chicago’s Leather Archives & Museum?

HRP: Thank you for asking. I was sitting up here thinking “it must look weird, maybe, to wear a lanyard and a medal out of context.” I was Ms. Philadelphia Leather 2017 and I first showed work here [at the LA&M] through a show that José curated [“Material Kink”]. So, there’s this compound created that is not only the history of the leather scene, but also the aspect of my work fitting into a space that makes sense.

KWG: I feel the exact same way.

HRP: Yes! Right? It’s often very difficult, especially when [the work] is super specific and very subcultural. So, coming here, today, it’s almost impossible to fathom what’s happening. My work has come into this context, and there’s so much influence from the leather community in my work that isn’t even necessarily visually direct, but is a part of what is influencing what I’m making. So, to be here is two-fold. There’s my relationship to leather and the leather community and then there’s the art that I would have never imagined would have been here.

KWG: And yet, it makes perfect sense.

HRP: Right, right, it does. Probably more than most places I can think of. It’s a terrific honor and I’m super grateful to have been able to be a part of this. This is beyond what I could have imagined. And it removes this aspect of expectation and status quo of art being shown in “art spaces,” contemporary art spaces, and I love that. I love breaking out of that and resisting that even though that is a part of my life and often where my work is shown. I like going into a place that has a different direction to it.

Featured image: Film still from “Sextra Curricular Activity” featuring actors Shikena Smalls and Tommy George. In this closing scene, Shikena tips her server, Tommy, with a coin on his
bare backside during an all women’s poker game. Photo courtesy of Heather Raquel Phillips.

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Kirin Wachter-Grene is Assistant Professor of Liberal Arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the 2017-2018 Visiting Scholar at the Leather Archives & Museum.