Kaori Oda is a Japanese filmmaker who often explores the construction of personal and communal narratives in places that are difficult to access, whether it is deep underground, under water or in furthest corners of our consciousness. Oda's approach to documentary filmmaking constantly reassesses her own presence and role in the narratives of others. As she mentioned in our conversation, she essentially would like to keep practicing reciprocal communications through filmmaking.

Kaori Oda's first film, Thus a Noise Speaks (2010), a documentary about her coming-out, won an audience award at Nara International Film Festival in 2011. Oda's first feature film, Aragane (2015), an observational documentary about an Eastern European coal mine, was shot under the supervision of the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. Aragane has been screened at Doclisboa Film Festival, Mar del Plata International Film Festival and Taiwan International Documentary Festival. Oda's second feature Toward a Common Tenderness (2017) is an essay film reflecting on the process of filmmaking and its values as well as shortcomings. Toward a Common Tenderness had its world premiere at DOK Leipzig. Oda's latest feature, Cenote (2019), an experimental documentary about the role of cenotes in the Mayan mythology and contemporary culture, had its international premiere at IFFR. In 2020, Oda was awarded the inaugural Nagisa Oshima Prize presented by the Pia Film Festival.

Kaori Oda. Image courtesy of the artist.

Salome Kokoladze: You have mentioned that as a filmmaker you are mainly interested in people. In Aragane, bodies of machines and their sounds take over the human presence in the mine. Similarly, darkness underground takes hold of human figures as well as our vision. In Cenote, the underwater sounds accompany and over time, force their way into the narrator’s voice. Did you find it challenging to create portraits of people while working with dominant elements such as darkness and loud noises that tend to alter both our visual and aural senses?

Kaori Oda: Indeed, it is challenging to capture what is in front of camera in the dark. However, being in the dark puts us in strange conditions and mind states. Our senses are forced to be heightened, which works well for filmmaking.

Video still. Aragane, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.

I am interested in people, which for me means being interested in the traces they have left behind in various spaces and the memories they are holding onto. I am not always able to see these remnants physically even when there is enough light, but I do try to capture them. I am still figuring out how I am engaging in the process. Sometimes, I come upon what people have left behind by chance, but I am not always that lucky.

I captured machines in Aragane because they hint at exploring who we are as human beings, or who we are as miners. 300 meters below the ground, the mine continues to expand its path further. The machines make loud noises as they work, and supply necessities for our livelihood.

In general, I love making portraits and am constantly looking forward to what I can capture about who a particular person is, or who we are as humans by filming people directly as well as their absence.

Video still. Aragane, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.

Video still. Aragane, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.

SK: Cenote starts with a narrator saying “This is our story. And here we are.” Soon after, we see the text on the screen telling us about cenotes and their role in the Mayan mythology. The voice of the narrator is situated in the present and it feels personal while the written text feels informative as well as distant from the narrator herself. What was your thinking behind starting the film this way?

KO: The informative text was always there from the beginning. Aragane, for instance, does not include any text considering where and when the film took place didn’t affect the essence of it. Cenote, on the other hand, required more contextualization. The voice-over of the Mayan narrator does not reference her own background, so I thought it would be helpful for the audience to have some basic information both about the narrator and the subject matter of the film.

SK: In the essay film Toward a Common Tenderness, you talk about your film Longing that you never finished. You say you had “no backbone to look deeper inside” to understand the reason for the film character, Senad’s sad eyes. Earlier in the film you also say that some things you cannot resist filming, they demand it from you. What I understand from these two reflections is that while as a filmmaker you film because your subject matter is irresistible, this alone cannot be sufficient to make and finish a film. I do wonder if you struggled with similar thoughts when working on Cenote. What were the questions you asked in Toward a Common Tenderness that followed you when making Cenote?

Video still. Toward a Common Tenderness, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

KO: Yes, I struggle and judge myself all the time when I shoot. However, when I shot Cenote, I was more relaxed. I think it was because we weren’t following any specific person. What we tried to capture was collective memories, something that we have deep inside of us.

We did make some portraits of people in Cenote. They looked at me/camera and I felt comfortable somehow. When I filmed Senad, however, I was thinking back then that I had to make something interesting. That was an uncomfortable feeling, because it meant I was not listening or fully open to Senad himself. This feeling created one-sidedness, while Senad was kind and open, I wasn’t. I felt that I could face the people in the Cenote portraits even though it was a momentary experience. Essentially, I would like to keep learning and practicing reciprocal communications in my filmmaking.

Video still. Cenote, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist.

Video still. Cenote, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist.

SK: Have you had a chance to return to Yucatan to screen Cenote for the people who participated in the film, or did COVID-19 delay your plans to do so?

KO: It was difficult for me to go to Yucatan in these past two years. In March 2020, we had a Mexican premiere in Mexico City and since then I have been in Japan. We also featured the film on the local TV channel and did some screenings around Mexico. The Assistant Director visited the people we met during the filming, so we could update them and show the portraits we made of them. Just a few weeks ago, however, we had a chance to screen Cenote in Merida, Yucatan. The Assistant Director is from the region and was there for the screening. I hope I can go to Yucatan again soon to see the people and create sort of a mobile cinema with a handmade screen to screen Cenote. SK: Are you working on anything new these days?

KO: Yes. I have been working on a feature film called Underground, which is taking place in Japan. We have been researching about Japanese underground for a year now. I have filmed a bit but have still a long way to go. I am focusing on air raid shelters, sewers, war-time underground ruins, and other spaces. In the project, we try to capture the fossils left by human beings. I want to figure out what more is there to attract me under the ground after making Aragane and Cenote.

Also, I started to film a welfare facility in Aomori. I shot the workers and the patrons there for a week at the end of September. I have been editing the scenes these days and I am imagining it to become a sketch of the space. I hope to go back there soon to spend more days in the facility and see the people I have filmed there again.

“I had reached the nothing, and the nothing was living and moist.”

Clarice Lispector

The excerpt from Clarice Lispector's The Passion According to G.H. accompanied Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili's 2016 exhibition I Move Forward, I Protozoan, Pure Protein at Micky Schubert Gallery in Berlin, Germany. This enigmatic link between the nothing and the carnal permeates Alexi-Meskhishvili's photographic work at large. Her ethereal depictions of light and color are never absolute abstractions, but always tied to specifics of history, memory, and cultural imaginings. Alexi-Meskhishvili transforms human bodies and everyday objects into radiant dreamscapes without compromising the materiality of her subject matter. She achieves this near impossible friendship between the conspicuous and the impalpable through the use of photomontage, large-scale printing, and various digital as well as analog collaging techniques. The resulting whimsical and often humorous compositions push the boundaries of the photographic medium and its reliance on the visible world.

Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili is a Georgian-American photographer based in Berlin. She studied photography at Bard College under Stephen Shore, An-My Lê and Barbara Ess. Her recent exhibitions include Georgian Ornament at Les Rencontres de la Photographie, Arles, France, Dog Smile at Siegfried Contemporary in Saanen, Switzerland, and Boiled Language at LC Queisser, Tbilisi, Georgia.

Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili. Image courtesy of the artist.

Salome Kokoladze: In the early 1970s a lot of American photographers, for example, Diane Arbus or Danny Lyon, started including the borders of the negatives in their prints. The appearance of the hairline black borders had multiple meanings: they showed that a photograph has not been manipulated and that the framing had been thought through before taking a photograph. When I look at your prints and their dark edges, I see a very different function assigned to this visual element. Could you talk about how or if the edges of your prints contribute to the openness and lyricism of your photographic syntax?

Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili: One thing that unites every photograph is that it is an edited frame of the world. The choice of the frame is what makes the photograph even though what you are left with points to the possibilities beyond the frame, beyond the visible. By using the black frame, I like to accentuate this aspect of photography as well as play with the history of the medium. Starting with Henri Cartier-Bresson, through, as you mention, Diane Arbus, as well as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn who utilized the photographic edge very precisely, the use of the negative borders was tied to the theory of the decisive moment, where its presence meant that the author “shot” the perfect image in real life without a need to edit it afterwards. Traditionally, it was an accolade to be able to photograph so that you didn’t need to re-edit as it meant you were the real deal. These days, with Photoshop, the black frame has become irrelevant, and you will never know whether I digitally added the frame in, or if I am actually that excellent of a photographer.

Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili. Danama დანამა, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili. I am your slice მე შენი ნაჭერი ვარ, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.

SK: In the Georgian Ornament series, your use of photograms as well as large fabric prints give an aerial feel to your images. The objects of your work, plastic bags and ornaments, present themselves not as a form of cultural currency, but as the substance of our imagination. I wonder in what ways it was challenging to work with objects that have saturated our daily lives and how you managed to escape cultural tropes that are attached to such subject matter.

KAM: The presence of various Georgian ornaments on plastic bags that are given out in tourist shops bewildered me. I was attracted to them nostalgically and simultaneously, repulsed by their inane quality. When I decided to do my first exhibition in Georgia, I thought about what visual art meant for Georgians, because for half a century, there was no exposure to contemporary art whatsoever. Georgia’s strongest visual history has been Byzantine architecture. To see these ornaments that are usually found on Basilicas and Churches used as some kind of auric representations of Georgianness, and printed on plastic bags like logos seemed unresolved in the best of ways. I still don’t know what it means and I like that. I just know that these bags are not produced anymore and that they will almost never decompose so they hold time in a similar way as photographs do. So, why not photograph them?

Ketuta Alexi-meskhishvili. Vine, from the Georgian Ornament series, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili. Installation view of Georgian Ornament, 2021 at Les Rencontres de la photographie d’Arles. Photo by Marjorie Sardanne. Image courtesy of the artist.

SK: Your photographic process feels very intuitive. When I look at your work, I see that you have carefully constructed a relationship with the objects you have photographed as well as the photographic objects themselves. I am really interested in the evolution of your work process. What pushed you to experiment with various analog or digital techniques and is there any new tool or method you wish to incorporate in your future projects?

KAM: My introduction as a child to image making has been through collage, and other forms of non-linear narratives. Sergei Paradjanov was my godfather and my first exposure to art was through my father who collaborated with him on his film Ashik Kerib. They both made collages as an attempt to disrupt the black and white propaganda narrative of the Soviet system. At Bard, I decided to study the history of experimental and Avant-Garde film and was completely consumed by it without realizing the roots of my attraction, as I do now. This sense of experimentation with the medium, with the narrative, is in my blood you could say. I do work spontaneously and attempt to invite as much improvisation as possible into the process. However, working with the large format camera is burdensome, it takes much concentration and time. It forces me to slow down and as I work, I go into an almost trance-like state, where I visually meditate on the object that I am photographing.

Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili. Monitor 2, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili. Installation view at Statements, Art Basel, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

SK: You appear in some of your photographs, but I don’t necessarily see those images as self-portraits. Just as some writers embraced the concept of the “implied author” and more intentionally manipulated the authorial presence in their works, you seem to appear in front of the camera to also embrace the inevitable implication of a photographer in a photograph. I am curious to hear more from you about images such as “I was no longer seeing myself,” “Monitor 2,” or “Wilfred Flower.” How does the function of your presence change in each of these works?

KAM: My presence in these images is Hitchcockian. It’s a joke, but it’s also not. Sometimes, I need to assure myself of my existence. Other times, I need to engage with the history of the female self-portraiture in photography. And then again, I sometimes photograph myself out of solitude since I am usually the only one around in my studio.

Annika Larsson is a Swedish artist working mainly with film, video, performance and installation. She is interested in incidental but meaningful gestures and rituals, in corporal-linguistic patterns of behavior that conceal hierarchical social power structures. Her works have been widely shown internationally, at institutions including Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel; Fundacion la Caixa, Barcelona; Le Magasin, Grenoble; Kunsthalle Nürnberg, Nürnberg; ICA-Institute of Contemporary Art, London; ZKM,Karlsruhe; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; S.M.A.K., Gent and Musac, Lyon. She has participated in biennials such as 49th Venice Biennial, 8th Istanbul Biennial and 6th Shanghai Biennial among others. Larsson lives and works in Berlin.

Annika Larsson. Portrait. Image credit: Courtesy of the artist.

Salome Kokoladze: One of your most recent projects is called “Non-Knowledge, Laughter and the Moving Image.” Laughter is a very interesting phenomenon, partly because majority of animals do not seem to have this ability to laugh (if they do, it is usually only in response to tickling). And even though laughter was thought, for centuries, to be an inherently human trait, it has somehow been associated with being beyond humanity (witches, hysterical women, or possessed humans were believed to laugh uncontrollably). My question is whether contrary to the popular belief that we lose ourselves through laughter, we actually find ourselves, our humanity through it?

Annika Larsson: Yes, this thought of laughter being an inherently human trait stretches back to Aristotle. However, as the scholar Mary Beard points out in her book Laughter in Ancient Rome, contrary to the common belief that Aristotle mentions it in his writings about laughter “as a display of superiority,” the actual source is more likely Aristotle's discussion of the human body and the role of the diaphragm. Here he asserts that “the fact that humans alone are susceptible to tickling” is “due to the fineness of their skin.” In other words, we are susceptible to tickling, because human bodies are responsive to touchthat is, they are affected by other bodies and affect other bodies.

As you also point out, responsiveness to tickling is not unique to the human, but exists in other animals too, such as rats for example. But we could also extend this to other forms of affective tickling that takes place between and inside organisms, bodies, technologies and environments.

Despite history’s opposite claims of assigning laughter to either nature or culture, one common view has been of laughter as a force and eruption in need for social regulation and control, including the self-control of the human subject over their own laughing body. As you mention, the common belief has been that persons who could not control their laughter were possessed by unnatural forces, from the divine to the devil. With the civilizational process of laughter, different forms of laughter also became ascribed to different bodies, where uncontrollable laughter came to be a proof of weakness, vulgarity, wildness or deviancy belonging to “the Other, the Savage, the Child or the Woman.” Jack Halberstam draws similar parallels around “wildness”, which he states “names simultaneously a chaotic force of nature, the outside of categorization, unrestrained forms of embodiment, the refusal to submit to social regulation, loss of control, the unpredictable” but what “has also served to name the orders of being that authority comes to tame.” My approach to laughter is in close proximity with Halberstam's writings on “wildness.”

Annika Larsson. Prologue - Alien Laughter, work-in-progress. Image credit: Courtesy of the artist.

But I am also interested in how moving image technologies participate in the affective ecologies of laughter. Here I am interested in how they have been serving as instruments of mapping, capturing or eradicating certain forms of laughter, as well as in them as affective and sensing systems and machines. But mainly, I am interested in how these technologies participate in processes of formation and deformation, and what role they play in what matters and what is excluded from mattering.

So to come to your question whether we could find ourselves and our humanity through laughter, first we might need to ask us what Sylvia Wynter asks: “What Does It Mean to Be Human?” in a system that has rendered some of us deviant. Perhaps the throbbing of laughter across organisms, bodies, and technologies can help us understand how unstable and inhuman we actually are, that we are neither outside the world nor free (to participate or laugh when we decide to), but rather that we are interconnected with everything around us and inside us.

SK: Are you interested in the state of drunkenness, for example, in videos like “The Discourse of the Drinkers” and “Europe”, for the same reasons you are interested in the notion of laughter?

AL: Yes, exactly. In drunkenness one can find forms of human-liquid laughter. This sort of laughter can also be found in other forms of human-nonhuman encounters and interactions, like human-plant laughter (cannabis), human-machine laughter (moving images, robots, computer systems) and human-wind laughter (the tickling wind). These intensive temporary states alter both our participation in the world as well as our perception of the world, which makes them interesting places to explore.

Annika Larsson. The Discourse of the Drinkers, 2017. Credit: Courtesy of the artist.

SK: The body has its own logic in a way, which often does not align with our lived realities. How do you position yourself, as a person who is holding the camera, in relation to the bodies that you are filming? What is the logic of the camera in relation to the logic of the body?

AL: Indeed, I feel very connected to what you are describing. Filming for me is a very tactile and bodily experience, full of improvised movement where things emerge rather than are planned ahead of time. Here I see the camera/lens/microphone both as extensions and transformations of my own body and perception, which might not bring me closer to the truth of things, but which puts me in contact with things in a different way, and which adds an additional point of view, another layer of reality.

SK: While focusing on the corporeal aspects of connectivity, it seems like you use language very scarcely in your work. However, still in pieces like “Animal”, conversations carry an important weight. As an artist who primarily observes movement and the body, how do you approach and incorporate language in your work?

Annika Larsson. Animal (In 14 Movements), 2012. Credit: Courtesy of the artist.

AL: For many years I avoided language in my films. In my early work the only person that speaks is in fact a machine (the synthesized voice of a CGI character in “New Gravity” from 2004). In my later work people do speak, but often, as you point out, in a conversational manner, in states of affect or as a performative act. When approaching language with my film “Animal,” language was in many ways already estranged through the protagonists' animal costumes. Also, the conversation between the characters in “Animal” circles much around being in that in-between place of simultaneously being in character and out of character. Moreover, in “The Discourse of the Drinkers” language is performative, and functions both as something that reveals and protects. Here the identities that take form through language are temporary rather than fixed. Many persons in the bar re-invented themselves throughout the evenings out of a need to protect their integrity or through states of drunkenness. What I learned through this is that it is possible to connect with people beyond language, even when their names and stories are made up. I guess the language that interest me is one that is polyphonic, affective and situated. It is very similar to how I see film-making, as a sort of grasping, full of hesitation, cuts, affect, rhythms, paradoxes, as well as of openings.