For a long time, the idea has been floating around that artworks can reflect the way we are in the world. Sometimes this thought sounds large, vague, and maybe even banal. It still pulls at me, though: not in theory, but through works that evince this possibility within themselves. These pieces are like a condensation of life and personhood happening. Which is to say changing, and in the same moment asking after the sentiments of this elusive “I.”
Samantha Bohatsch’s mixed feelings (2017) is like a powerfully attenuated testimony to life’s and love’s weirdness. So too, the more recent SHE SAID (2018). Publicly spoken or recorded texts, the works are circuitous, sometimes crackling with faint background noise. I take the latter as evidence to the perennial discord that transpires between the outside world and private metamorphoses. Previously, Samantha’s themes were similar, but her media more palpable. Objects familiar from generic life experiences were combined with signifiers connoting the self’s mutability. A girl’s life (2015) had four posters hung on a metal fence. Each was superimposed with the faces of young androgynous celebrities; like Leonardo DiCaprio, with his gorgeous swooping dirty blonde Romeo hair; Leo DiCaprio, modeling something like male beauty but also - maybe without even knowing it - a way to know oneself as something unexpectedly other.
To show yourself to yourself, through the image of another; that’s a scary thing. But the gesture is also consoling, in the sense that it shows how we’re all chasing the real me together, through movements of mimesis and authenticity. The sound piece mixed feelings recounted this search in a hushed exegesis on attraction, encounter, danger, and comfort. One woman addresses another, who had contacted her on social media. Actually, she was “kind of stalking” her… For lack of a second voice, the piece sounds diaristic, which only makes the speaker’s tender tone more arresting; when does the phrase “kind of stalking” communicate adoration, rather than revulsion? When it marshals faint sarcasm, to recognize the murky no-person’s land where amour is clumsily expressed.
It’s the strange interiority of this voice that has me preoccupied. I know that we’re always talking to ourselves, even while we’re talking to others. Empathy and attention are impure. Physical and emotional feedback is produced in the moment of speaking - words, twitches, and dilations come back at us like signals. But do we also talk to others when we talk to ourselves?
Because I first listened to mixed feelings in dark Berlin December, its background noises - hazy voices on the bus, scuffling pedestrian feet - are now colored with the seeping blue-grays of mid-winter. Warmly, though, and not unfittingly. The piece is melancholic, in combining sudden attraction with confusion and disappearance; both in digital communiqués and in corporeal life; both in terms of relationships and the vicissitudes of people. The speaker continues: “I have to say / in the club / You’re someone else.” Here, mixed feelings take place both in narrative and its articulation. The noun feeling gets tangled with its verb sibling, as words slip between query and assurance. When we hear: “What to do when you feel lost / what to do when you have the feeling like / losing yourself,” the expected rise in pitch that indicates a question never arrives. So we’re left in an uncertain place; the kind of place where we should probably be trying to meet one another.
Last spring, such a place was incanted when Samantha performed SHE SAID with the actor Veronika Bachfischer. We were packed into Bob’s Pogo Bar, an old stone dungeon of a pub underneath Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art. I remember, sitting on the concrete floor, how the poem’s patient fragment stanzas in English and German became a verbal poultice, drawing the discomfort out of my bones. These phrases made an echo of the morphing self: disoriented, ecstatic, disoriented and then ecstatic again. The writing was inspired by the Benedictine abbess, philosopher-poet and musician Hildegard von Bingen, who spent many years shrouding her mystic visions from punishment.
The revelation of Hildegard’s visions resonates with the disclosure of feeling and feelings in SHE SAID. It’s a physical effect, but not necessarily a human one. The author reaches across entities to find a metaphor for herself. Upon seeing someone for the first time, she feels “like a worm / naked / without my skin;” all weird organs and oozing embarrassing body parts - everything you don’t want to show. Intoxicating lights, sounds, and colors follow. Transmuted into spoken text, these shifts between familiarity and non-familiarity to oneself overlap with the consonances and dissonances inherent in language: the smooth phrases that flow when we’re calm, and the confused stutters that tumble out when we’re not.
Twice in the piece, we hear a silent scream; first in English, and then in German as “schrie ohne einen Ton,” from the other side of a persona split by language. This character is changing and disappearing and panicking because who wouldn’t? Their words register jarring upheavals within the self, and the unexpected and sometimes unwanted way in which those upheavals bridge self and other. In flashes of awkward beauty, the strangeness of these processes resonates even in the knowledge of their absolute normality, their being enigmatic facts of life.