Artists Skye Reynolds and Khamlane ‘Kham’ Halsackda discuss their live Zoom performance piece ‘S/He into Flesh’. This conversation is based on questions by Ana Hine.
Kham: So the first question is, “What were the circumstances that led to the ‘S/He into Flesh’ online screening with Tramway?”
Skye: We arrived at an idea we were delighted with which was inspired by ‘The Birth of Venus’. It’s a nude duet. We meet each other and Kham very slowly rolls forward and I’m on his back and he rolls and I turn and I recreate moments of visual arts on his back. He’s also involved in some of these moments. Then together we explore the idea of the chaise lounge and the reclining nude and create some sort of charades which are politically inspired, ideas around Eve and Adam, Leda the Swan and Zeus leading into a punk song with words to the tune of Patti Smith. That was the show we were going to make! [laughs]
Kham: Yes. [laughs] When we were in Australia with Critical Path we started touching on punk and protest, rocking out in the nude and feeling very liberated. Feeling like, how can we touch on this feeling of being nude and feeling free and being expressive? We started to look at renaissance nudes, trying to understand more what intimacy means. Considering, because we are a male and a female body, how this could be interpreted and what other perspectives can you have? We had long discussions about what feeling masculine or feminine meant and realized we have individual personal experiences that we feel very strongly about. Luckily, we’re friends and didn’t end up falling out but the feeling of these heated discussions was very important to us. We thought, “How can we instigate that sense too?” So, part of the physical intimacy was connected to this dialogue that has been happening for years, centuries even. It’s an old conversation. The idea of us being intimate… communicating this idea of how intimacy could be.
Skye: You said, “I’m really interested in starting with this one idea when you’re on my back, Venus, Birth of Venus,” and then it grew from there. It was very satisfying to decide to actually reduce all of our creative ideas to the one we thought was the most potent. That could convey a lot of the feelings and ideas we wanted to share through the work, which were also about female empowerment. There’s a woman standing on a man, but we also did one with a woman treading down on the man. But there was humour in it as well. We actually did the whole show where we took our clothes off during and then we decided we didn’t need to do that. We could just come on stage in the nude and allow people to look at us. At first we stand there for a while and then we look at each other. We wanted to strip away some of the cliches and associations that come with the body. We went back into those roots for the Tramway residency because we knew that we couldn’t work together live and the opportunity came up to do a remote residency. I knew Clarissya, who is part of the Tramway team, and I’d been talking to her about trying to get some production support for this project in Scotland. We had been really focusing on developing the project in Sweden, and we still are, but we needed support to do the work here. She said, “Oh, there’s an opportunity coming up.” We applied for it, that led to the residency, and that led to the screening we had on Tramway TV.
Kham: The feminism aspect of the project, the idea of looking through the feminist lens, was always in there from the beginning. It’s still something we keep constantly in mind. It’s been great for me because now-a-days guys are more knowledgeable in terms of… the information that is there about feminism. I feel like its a journey or a process through research, this project. I started to learn and I know a lot more now. That’s just an important part of what it is we want to do with this project.
Skye: That journey has been great for both of us because feminism is a word that’s so broad and it’s got so many implications associated with it, doesn’t it? I’ve done my reading and my experiencing but I’ll have my own lens. You and I have created our own lens together on how we want to view this piece of work which is actually very much about that empowerment for both of us. We have our research and what you saw at Tramway and we uncovered what we felt was of value when we were making the Zoom performance. Things came into that that were not part of the previous one to do with self-care, ritual and sanctuary. I think that those ideas for me all come under the banner of feminism, if we’re going to use that word. I know it’s a controversial word in general because people have funny feelings about what it means, we’ve had our own conversations that were challenging for both of us. But this is the work and we need to do that work to unpick what we mean when we use the words: equal rights, human rights, expression, rebalancing of the gender, imbalance and all of those ideas. I hope that makes sense, it’s not too whiffly-waffly.
Kham: “How do you find the experience of making such intimate work at home?” Being at home was really a necessity. Because of COVID we couldn’t be in studios or get out of our houses. At first I was self-isolating, so we were cornered into working out a solution. I felt like… it gave me… this first-time experience of going through process and researching at home, which felt very personal, very revealing. And when I’ve watched through the videos, it happens to have a bit of roughness to it which was really appealing to me. I liked it a lot and I had a feeling that because I felt vulnerable in my own space, showing my own empowerment, that it would communicate as such. That was also part of the feedback we got when we did the Zoom performance on Tramway TV. There was definitely a heightened sense of intimacy. Although we couldn’t be physically together that intimacy was being communicated in another way, on another level.
Skye: For me in some ways it was easier to be intimate at home because I was living alone so there’s no one else there and I had control over my space. I enjoyed the fact that I could control what was framed so that I could move in and out of frame in a way that you can’t do in a studio. There’s no hiding at the studio. I mean you can do physical hiding by drawing your energy in and doing the thing of, “Don’t look at me, I’m not ready to be looked at yet,” but it’s very exposing all the time. So, on one level it was actually easier to regulate my energy with this because when I was on I was on and I didn’t have to be on all the time. I liked the way we could go, take time out to do little projects and then we’d share the work together and that was… that actually produced some really useful material. The combination of being able to be in our own living rooms, and using the digital media… that really supported the way we were going to collaborate. And there was no other option; Zoom would have to be the way, the frame we were going to use. We were like, “We don’t really know how to use it, let’s see what we can do.” One thing that was interesting on the intimacy level is when it came to do the public showing of the work. I was a bit… I had to do a little double take when I saw some of the intimacy of what we produced together because I realized it was really intimate and it was my living room and suddenly it hit me that this is going to go out on this Tramway TV thing and I had to process that. There were some discussions around that. There’s something about collaborating with a close colleague and being intimate with them and then inviting an exterior world into your personal space. I’m really happy with how we did the whole process around that.
Kham: Inviting people to our private space was very revealing. Allowing people to see Kham and Skye as opposed to just performers due to the fact that we were in our own space. Touching on the digital aspect, I would say there was something magical about us being able to like… what’s the word… guide the watcher into other places of their imagination, although we were in our own spaces. Like it was very magical in a sense. All of a sudden we could get them to forget that we were actually just in our living room or in our bedroom. [laughs] There was also something really special about using the digital aspect to be able to do that but then to always return back to, “Oh, they’re just in their own room!”
Skye: This reveals what the benefits and challenges of collaborating digitally are and how digital media enables us. You next question is, “Do you ever collaborate in person through non-digital media?” We’ve always collaborated in person. Like we were going to Sweden or we were going to Glasgow. When we looked at it, we were like, “Oh, we could have actually earned a proper wage if we kept all the funding and did a digital residency!” It’s something that never really crossed our minds until COVID. I’d done a lot of work on Zoom and quite a lot of exploring with some other mediums like that. Kham hadn’t done as much. What was really lovely about the collaboration was that I brought some of the ideas that I’d been working with and Kham discovered other things. It felt really exciting because I was getting a bit sick of Zoom. Now the ideas have multiplied… one thing I was really excited about was how we worked with backgrounds. We did a lot of stuff with digital backgrounds and what we chose to show is actually just the one background, which was our naked bodies. But we had lots of other ideas that we played with and there’s material that we’d want to open up or explore more later on. We played with multiple screens which was another idea of intimacy with the body, like we’re presenting different ideas around intimacy. There was a naked body as a background, there was us in front of that and then there’s the closeness of the bodies. So the digital media enabled us to play with perspectives in a way that you might not see if you’re in the studio where you might be further back and not really able to show that as closely. We both were really excited about what we could do with the screens and how it was going to be framed for the audience. And then there’s the final bit with the ritual element. It was an idea that I’d stumbled upon in another experiment but hadn’t done anything with, so I kept it for this project and put it to Kham and said, “Is this interesting to you?”. We just loved it – it was the idea of adding multiple bodies in. I was really excited about that because it was also something about being on your own, in your own space and how can we put ourselves together in one screen. How we did it was to load ourselves into each other’s dance scenarios and even though it’s not real, it feels real when you watch it, doesn’t it?
Kham: Yeah. Yeah, that’s the thing. The illusion of the… digital aspect and how it can easily lead you into thinking, surprisingly, in that way. It just opened up so many possibilities, allowed us to find other ways to connect. Before, we could connect because we were in the same room, be physically together but here it really got us to question how else can we do it and what it means to be on a screen and all of this. The way we choose how to frame ourselves with the screen of the computer and…
Skye: We should also add that there were lots of technical hitches and it was… we just sort of glossed over that but it was complicated and we had lots of problems with Zoom. Zoom crashed randomly and would erase all of the backgrounds. Luckily, we saved them all. There wasn’t really any rhyme or reason. And it took us a lot longer than we thought to frame things because you’re framing and filming only one moment and how you see it, that’s all you get. Like when you’re in a studio you can get different perspectives but when you’re looking at a small screen you only get that frame… so it took probably longer to create smaller moments than I’d expected anyway.
Kham: Yeah, for sure. I think the difficulty for myself was probably connected to the feeling that I was starting from scratch because, like you say, you’d done some things before with Zoom but I’d barely done anything. I felt like this slowed things down too and then lots of technical faults kept happening which was also very difficult to deal with. I mean, it was all a learning curve, for sure.
Skye: I didn’t think you slowed the process down at all, but I mean, that could be your experience.
Kham: Yeah, maybe it was the frustration of not feeling knowledgeable enough and having to learn as I went along. The next question is also related to digital work; “Do you think the pandemic has changed video and digital art and the way we produce, show and experience art? How do you feel about any of this?” I mean, it’s opened up doors. I would say it’s allowed people new ways to think and approach how we work for sure. Like you said, “Oh, we could save so much money if we had used this early on,” but I definitely don’t regret that we worked together in person. We discovered other things though. When you’re having to work online it can suggest new ways of thinking, so I see the value in both ways. It’s good to know that if we can’t easily work in the same physical space together, that it’s a thing that functions really well. It maybe makes you more tired though… you’re affected in a different way. It is just understanding how it works and how it functions and how it affects us.
Skye: One of the other things that’s a result of working with digital art and video and the way we produce, show and experience art in regards to the question is that we had people from all around the world coming to that sharing. And because it was at night, there were people from Australia that actually bought a ticket, to get up at in the morning to watch the show – including Clay Hicks from Critical Path in Sydney and friends. I’m Australian, originally and that kind of reach for work that’s done online, especially if it’s recorded, means it’s going to be much more accessible to people and much more accessible to people who can’t get out of their house to get to a show. I don’t think anybody wants this kind of work to replace live art, because it’s a different experience, but the difference is really interesting. It can also be very exhausting rehearsing and recreating shows. So the opportunity to do something that’s, well, our show was live so it wasn’t something we recorded and sent out and there were reasons for that as well which we… I mean maybe we should talk about that now because that is a question.
Kham: We were lucky. I don’t know if that’s the word, but in the sense that when we had to move to this online platform we could. We had to rethink things and we did talk about the integrity of our project and how we work with these online platforms, but we were able to say, “Well, if it doesn’t work, we’re not going to go through with it,” Because it has to hold that original integrity. But we were lucky in that sense because moving it online didn’t mean we had to change the things that were the foundation of the project. There were very crucial things that still connected to our original project ideas so for us the digital platform worked in this case, but maybe in another project, another idea wouldn’t have. So we were fortunate in that way.
Skye: And actually we… we want to progress the work with a digital element now. We’re not just jumping back to our original project, although it was really difficult for us to let go. What we would like to do is to create some live material that we would then bring to a live stream show and then perhaps we’d also do a live version in the future. We’re working all this out but we’re not… we’re not going fully back to saying, “Let’s get together and do a live show,” even if we can completely do that, we want to use some of this technology. We also like the Zoom format, we like the roughness… I mean, what’s interesting is before we actually started this project we did talk about using digital technology in our work. Kham has a Swedish collaborator who works with quite high-level digital technology and we like the idea of doing something quite um… I don’t know quite the word, it’s not “informal”, but we want to be ourselves and we want to be present in our work. We don’t want to come across as being like, “Here’s a big stage and we’re the performers and the audience should feel some kind of strange fourth wall.” Neither of us are really into that kind of work, but we do like the idea of having a little bit of very high-level tech in the show to highlight and contrast the rawness and the vulnerability and the openness of the naked body in the previous element. Now we’re experimenting like… ok, we’ve got Zoom which is very basic, we’ve got us and we’re being ourselves but we’re also being performers and then we might have another high-level digital technology element that’s a bit shazam-y. But we’re not entirely sure, are we Kham? These are the ideas that are going through our heads now as we look forward.
Kham: I mean, that in a way goes to the next thing about the use of the split screen and why we feel drawn to that digital setup. Um… as Skye just mentioned, like the…the idea of working with someone who is more experienced than we are about how to use digital media would probably allow us to access other means, other than just split-screen. I mean we fell into split screen naturally because it was a part of the function that was available to us and it felt very natural to explore what was available to us. This led to questions about whether it worked or not according to the ideas that we were coming up with and the split-screen did at least for me, I don’t know what you felt, Skye like… I felt like the split… oh my God, I can’t say that the split-screen kind of just presented Skye and Kham very clearly. It allowed us to be these two individuals and through that, we were trying to meet like it established almost something very simple and clear and because it was Zoom and it’s not polished, I think the word is “polished”, when something’s too polished it makes you… I don’t know, connect with it in another way and I feel like because it is Zoom and it was a bit rough and ready and it was a bit self-home-made, self-made that I feel this is probably why people are able to connect with it. It felt relatable. I mean, at this time everyone is using these media so they’re very familiar with it but not perhaps under the circumstances of two people using it to perform.
Skye: What people I spoke to fed back to us was that they were impressed by the variety of ways we used the screens. That was what we wanted to do. We wanted to really see, what can we do? We’re in our living rooms, we can have a backdrop, we can change the lighting so maybe it was also relatable because when you watch something and people are in their home and we reveal that, they’re playing around with like backgrounds and lights and that’s what you’re seeing so I think people have been intrigued by those experiments and actually, some people messaged me and said, “Was that pre-recorded?” so it was really interesting how people perceive what you’re doing. As far as the split-screen we just decided to use that as our frame and that’s what we used. You having brought up that question Ana, makes me think when Kham and I next meet, we might talk about that a bit more and then go ’cause we did actually, we did want to play a bit more with single screen and you can see that a tiny bit in the ritual but it’s quite complicated… it’s hard to tell what’s being seen when you’re watching the Zoom because you have to pin… it’s complicated to know who’s being pinned because you pin yourself and then the other person but the other person doesn’t necessarily see that. But we were being hosted by Alex who is a technician in Tramway. He was controlling some of that so we could see better what’s happening.
Kham: I mean the split-screen is also, like you say, with the pinning… it was… at the end of the day it was quite disruptive to the flow of what we had come up with as well. It felt definitely better with Alex who was doing everything for us, for the sharing, but the next step would definitely be to work with a third person and we could talk with them and set up a way that they handle our decisions on when to cut from split to single or whatever it is that we wanted because what it came down to is we didn’t want the pinning to disrupt the flow, the dramaturgy of what it was we had created.
Skye: Yeah, so actually maybe that we… as we were making, wanted to make a duet and explore the duet aspect within a framework that was accessible to us. The next question is, “When you were both lit only by the lamps in your hands, the darkness around you dissolved in a way that made it seem like you were occupying the same space. Was that an intentional effect?” Um… I would say we were definitely trying to create a space… a personal space in each other’s spaces that resonated together to allow a type of a ritual environment to occur. The fact that it appeared to you like it was the same space, that’s beautiful. I don’t think we were trying to fully do that because we knew that pixelation was different in both of our rooms but we definitely were trying to create an ambiance that we could both inhabit and that’s why we explore that split-screen at the beginning, to try to blend it to different ideas of ritual preparation into one idea in the mind. Then we shifted to my part, and then we brought Kham back into it. On a thematic level we brought the Venus, The Birth of Venus idea back into it.
Kham: In a way there are two rituals and we are maybe focused on different things. But yeah, the connection there is about self-care, it’s about lifting up and positive things that we really uphold and it was about taking time. I was going through a lot of confusion and wanted to kinda settle my energy, which I spoke about with Skye, so the rituals also were connected to that. I wanted something that was quite quiet. Skye’d bring in many images of women like Joanne of Arc and it was almost a way to invoke them. We use the word invoke, to invoke these spirits. I felt like, because mine was so quiet, I felt that what were doing was to support you and that’s where the connection is. Then luckily, it was dark and it brought our two worlds together and that’s a really nice coincidence. I think we should say it’s intentional! [laughs]
Skye: It also touched on the pagan ideas of the spirits adapts and the female spirit, and the jumping over the candles, witches and a bit of magic. We were aware that when I was jumping over the candle we were watching it back going “Look at how the light was almost bleeding.” We liked that sense of movement and pain and the contrast with the quiet Kham grounded focused ritual ideas. How would you call that? Those stiller moments? Meditative poses. That piece is all drawn upon personal inspiration or personal invocation of role models, spirits, memory. I just lost a family friend to COVID and some of the idea… we started the residency just after that so I was in that room, I was meditating, I was remembering and there were a lot of moments and ideas around prayer.
Kham: I was thinking about Buddhism and meditation and then I started to include like lao, traditional dance and these dances were a way to connect to heaven so these very personal aspects came in.
Skye: Beautiful. Next is: “How do you feel with your experiences working nude…?” Okay, I’m going to combine a couple. “You asked the audience not to film or screenshot ‘S/He into Flesh’. Why was that?” The reason why we ask the audience not to film or screenshot ‘into Flesh’É that’s a really big question and it really influenced the presentation of the work. We chose to promote the work under a pseudonym, because I’m working with early years, so small children, and there are some sensitivities around the job I’ve got and the outreach of that in social media and how certain people like parents or families if they came across information about me performing nude, if it was presented in the wrong way, how that could compromise and affect that work. I wanted to be sensitive about that work because it’s a new job and there have been a few sensitivities around some social media material regarding myself with that job. Kham was absolutely just “yes” all the way, “whatever you need to do” and so was Tramway and it was a really good experiment to promote the work under a pseudonym because of the nudity or semi-nudity in it.
Skye: “How did the work differ due to your perceived gender identities?” Deciding to perform nude didn’t come lightly to me, it was a real journey before I felt comfortable. I mean, when we first went to Australia I was like “I wanna dance in the nude” and that was not a problem. It was boiling hot and pouring rain and humid, and it was an amazing visceral and physical experience, incredibly liberating. But I had thoughts about my body. Like, I’m nearly fifty and I was… I have… I was always thinking is my body… this sounds really bad but is it good enough to be shown nude in front of all these people? I got over it pretty quickly but… that was the thought I had, that my body is different, it’s in a different condition than it was. Of course, my body is in a great condition but I had some of those ideas come up about presenting nude and presenting my body and how do I want it to be, and as we’ve worked those ideas came away. They didn’t mean anything and when I watched the footage, when I look at us, I don’t even think about our gender. I see two human bodies together, intimately presenting work and I see that a bit later on, maybe there’s some reference to male and female and then you might notice more specifically it’s a male or female body but… I think my main experience of gender was wrapped up in with the nudity rather than being me as a female being nude. It was more about “I’m nude and I’ve got work which might not understand why I’m performing nude” and “they might think it’s inappropriate because I’m working with children”. So that’s pretty much what I would say about that.
Kham: I don’t know, it feels like a very big question to answer. My feeling is that it’s a process to imagine that you’re gonna perform nude. I had began my process years ago, since the first time I performed nude, but it can be a very vulnerable thing. I was aware that I should support you because I could see you going through the process so I was trying to be sensitive to how it felt to you, what it meant, all of those things. I think for me it was just about supporting that. When we talk about… when the question is about gender I feel like we could go into conversations about previous conditioning in society but also the work, the body and what we expect our bodies to be like, what our bodies used to be like, it’s so… quite complex but I would say, on a simple note, I felt like I was fine. I didn’t mind it at all but I was just aware that you were going through this process that needed to happen before you got to that point where you would decide “Okay, am I gonna do it or not?”.
Skye: We had lots of discussions about this. We’re aware that we are a man and a woman on stage and what we wanted to do was see if we could create a piece of work that could transcend the assumptions and projections, cliches that the audience might put on to that and also be aware enough of that, that we could play with those if we wanted to. But, ideally, we wanted to go beyond.
Kham: “Do you feel like women or femme people are punished for making work using their bodies in a way men and masculine people are not, or do you find that we are all punished socially and professionally for using our bodies in our artistic way?” I would say it’s definitely very different to have… to be a man, to have a man’s body on like a computer screen or an iPhone screen or whatever. I think there’s always criticism, but in very different ways. It’s impacted by the circumstances that surround us in the world… I think it can very easily be understood as pornography to people that aren’t really informed about culture or art and this way we’re using the body. Recently a friend of mine who did quite intimate nude work… the performance was found on a porno site without her permission… so this thing about being very careful about what is put out there as art and who sees it, who utilizes it. It’s very real and it’s something to seriously consider. I mean, how do we cope with this? How do we handle it? And how can we encourage people to understand a naked body in a way that isn’t sexual?
Skye: There’s also that element of reclaiming the roles. Rather than the passive female that’s laying there going, “I know I’m being looked at and I see you looking at me but I’m not doing anything, my body is passive”, we wanted to really be embodied. And the other thing I think we did was… there was no judgment about our bodies at all if we were completely accepting of our whole physicality and it was much… it was really playful, we were really playing. In our first show we were making sounds on the floor and everything and this attitude of acceptance came in through the work. I was aware and concerned that these images, the work, could be recorded by someone and we wouldn’t know if they recorded it. We asked them not to but anyone could take photos or record so when we were presenting the ultimate material, it was intentional that it was pixelated. And also with the camera on we kept our underwear on and at this point I think that this is important because there’s that potential of the work to be hijacked and considered pornographic or played around with in a way that’s not our intention. When we performed live it was very explicit. I mean, we weren’t in people’s faces but we were rolling all over each other and making strange positions and we were like two bodies that were melted and we were an uninhibited about that. But we were aware that that kind of intimacy and explicitness on a screen and filmed could be interpreted in a very different way and we weren’t… we’re not yet at a place where we know how to… portray that level of intimate nudity. Or even whether or not we think it’s appropriate for this media. I think when we talk about punishing bodies and taking advantage of bodies, that’s maybe why we’ve just not… for myself, that’s perhaps why I’ve not offered to put my body in that place yet because I’m not knowledgeable enough or trusting enough of digital media and it’s hi-jacking or appropriation of other people’s nudity in a way that would convey and be true to our intention.
Kham: The process of considering all of these things, trying to understand them as best as we could was empowering because we were making the decisions and we were deciding how we wanted to be seen and, at the end of the day, we could make statements like, “Don’t film or don’t photograph,” and be clear in that way. But there’s still a certain amount of trust that we have to put in the people watching and I think this is the reality. Digital media is very hard to control once it’s out there. That being said, I felt like… what came through for me was the feeling of empowerment despite having to navigate those things.
Skye: Exactly! We navigated those things and we came up with choices that we wanted to make based on what we were happy sharing and that’s why we didn’t want people to record it. We wanted to do a live performance, we’re not interested in watching pre-recorded performance, so we thought “Well, for our performance, we want to do it live and it’s a live experience and if you can’t make it, it will happen again at some point.”
S/He into Flesh is not available to watch online, due to some of the concerns laid out in this conversation. Instead, find Skye on Twitter @skyereynolds and Kham’s work at khamlanehalsackda.com.