In and Out of the Frame: Smell and Hegemony – An ongoing correspondence between Aleesa Cohene and Elizabeth Knafo

Aleesa Cohene and Elizabeth Knafo have been friends since 2015. Things they’ve been talking about include: when manners become silencing tactics; social pressures against speaking out in the queer community; art washing as a gentrification tactic; the limits of identity politics; racism and the everyday ways whiteness is produced, guarded, and maintained.

Elizabeth Knafo: A smell often reminds us of what we already know to be true but weren’t conscious of yet. A smell can disturb and repel, a smell can affirm, make us stay longer and look closer. We might try to interrogate the smell: what is it made of? Where is it coming from? Do you want more of it? Are you bracing against it? Are you reading it like a book, or looking into it like a mirror? Are you in a trance or are you preparing to light up and fight? The smell unfolds around us, the smell binds us, but also makes us recoil or breathe differently. The manufactured smells of industry carry carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, a connective matter from source to body. The smell makes the moment speak up, once we notice it, once we’ve tuned in, once we’ve realized what we’re talking about, and who and what is talking to us. How is the racial capitalist economy, or the state, like a smell? The smell marks the presence of acrid chemical compounds, or it marks their absence. Sometimes the smell of backyard fruit trees and oil refining are in the air at the same time. All this makes me wonder how social orders and hierarchies function like smell. Could this exercise tell us anything about the way power works between people, the way power functions both as a central, obvious thing, but also as something that nests in the periphery?

To begin, I have some questions for you:

What are the indications that while you are speaking up, others are acting to deny your assertion?
What is your expectation of what you call, “revolutionary desires as a somatic manifestation”? Please tell me more about this. How can our bodies manifest revolutionary desires and expectations?
 How does smell help delineate the way that social order creates and recreates itself? What does speaking up generate, atmospherically, as in: a wash of social and emotional smell of what sort? How does the belief that neutrality exists proliferate, endure, insist on itself? What do you believe we already know to be true? What is complicity made up of? What is being protected when one is complicit? What are you seeking in the retraining, or maybe, the releasing, of our senses?

Aleesa Cohene: I’ve been thinking about how (and maybe why) speaking up is met by a silencing impulse by those who don’t want to rock the boat; how saying something out loud more than often doesn’t invite a conversation but rather shuts it down. I struggle with this. When someone speaks up, says what’s on their mind, I mostly feel relief. I now have information to work with. I have something to listen to and a responsibility to respond or not. I feel implicated by what is expressed around me. I know some reasons why people choose to stay silent: there’s something to be gained from passivity. Speaking up would mean revealing other things about themselves; it would require taking time. Of course, I’ve also been in many situations where not speaking up has been exactly the right way to protect myself from a conflict I’m not up for. It isn’t a position I like to take and I don’t believe in neutrality.

As an antidote to this, I’m usually up for anything in my practice that can reveal new desires. My first lesson with scent blending is that materials can cancel each other out; one overpowers the other and specific subtler scents in the mix disappear. Next I began reducing the amount of the strongest player and tried to strike a balance with the other scents. As I did this more and more, I understood that nothing ever cancels anything out. I just give up, or my nose gives up, a limit is reached and I can’t sense the distinctions anymore. What felt like a competition or a hierarchy becomes an interplay with more experience and time. I guess what I’m saying is something about limits and shutting down, and how the politics of re-training sensorium can help us find our way through.

Cohene1Photo by: Saskia Wilson-Brown, Institute for Art and Olfaction, Los Angeles

If you asked me these questions a year ago, I would have wanted to talk about the unpredictable, or the unexpected. I believe that the moment we don’t understand something, or sense it is out of the ordinary, our political, intellectual, and emotional work begins. This year has been full of surprises and situations that I couldn’t read properly: moving to a new country, a new climate, a new community; unknowing and being unknown. The unpredictable has become the thing to expect. It’s meant that I feel more, smell more, see more, and know a whole lot less. A year later, I’m grappling with the emptiness of that. But I’m filling the spaces with what’s available. Our new apartment smells like my grandparents’ place in the Jewish retirement community in Deerfield Beach, Florida. I don’t understand it. Their place was light mauve wall-to-wall plush carpeting, overly air conditioned, filled with furniture covered in plastic, and it looked onto a golf course. There was almost always an onion bagel toasting and smoked fish being eaten loudly. Aside from the sun and palm trees, there is nothing similar about their condominium and our apartment. No air conditioning, no carpets, no plastic sheets, no bagels and no golf. Sometimes maybe smoked fish. But there is something in the air that I smell that I know. It’s the oddest sensation, like they are protecting me with a feeling of belonging. Or, in other words, I am protecting myself by allowing the past into the present. It makes me happy. Whatever is happening, it feels right to follow it. When I’m looking for the language to describe the scent, I’m faced with the colonial lexicon of categorizing smell and how the perfume industry classifies scent. What feminine and masculine scents supposedly are, rich and poor scents, racialized scents, young and old scents, classic and contemporary, the list of binary clichés goes on. If we stay here, experiencing scent in these terms, subsumed by the industry and its capitalist ends, scent is a leader in delineating social order and perpetuating injustices. Racism, as a perfume, smells like the first floor of Nordstrom; white people consume it en masse to get higher, to go to the next level, to rise in the ranks. However, I believe if we work with the vitality of scent, and our powers within it, we can enact difference as opposed to domination. Thankfully, our senses don’t know linear time.

Cohene2Photo by: Aleesa Cohene, Manteuffelstrasse 20, Berlin

EK: Can we talk about framing, and how you use framing and re-framing in your video work? Who and what’s in the foreground of a film, or the films you have worked with, and what’s in the background? The answer is that in both the foreground and the background is ideology. The answer is ideology, and ideology. Ideology is always the main character, and all the other characters as well! Supporting roles to support the ideology. To actually dismantle the ideology or subvert it, isn’t it actually necessary to exist outside of the frame, or to exist in order to eventually exit the frame? Is everything within the frame a recuperation back into the ideology (I can get more specific about which ideology)? I mean, how does white supremacy fill the room, or the frame? How can we dismantle the frame?
 If, when we aren’t dismantling it, we must ask: what are we protecting? Who are we protecting? It’s so total that it is the air. That’s what I notice in your use of smell. It’s the only way out of the frame, to indicate just how pervasive hegemony is and that we are enacting it as we breathe. So that each breath will remind us of how deeply held social order is: in our assumptions, in what people concoct in order to protect order, in the way patriarchy and whiteness refuses to see itself. It’s also a hint that we are missing something, that there is more going on than we realize. We already know it. Where is the character, what is the character, what is traveling through the character, and how do we aid in changing or dismantling the character?
There is precision in making a character, there is a goal of a fluid, seemingly spontaneous presentation of what is, even as it is carefully manufactured to uphold and project ideology.

AC: Maybe I’ll explain my work process and answer your questions as I go along. In my video installations, I build composite characters derived from existing film footage, archiving and cataloguing film clips. I mine footage from hundreds of films, collecting and categorizing thousands of clips, which become the raw material for my video works. ‘Composite characters’ emerge from my archive of sources, edited to form linear, continuous identities.

Each project begins with a political problem or desire and the narratives are subsequently formed through the process of strategic editing. These composite characters are built through the continuity of bodies in motion and the discontinuity of multiple people, fixing themselves provisionally in the specific narrative of each work. In order to assemble composite characters, what is in the foreground of the film is overruled by who is in the foreground, at least for me, as the maker. I might need a body to be looking left while opening a door, the next body to complete the action and exit, the next body to walk down a few stairs, and so on. I construct the characters in a space maintained by two focal points: How cohesive does the composite have to be for a character to emerge and be accepted? How far can the composite come apart before a character is lost? Inside these boundaries, there’s information about hegemony, how it functions, and more importantly, the skills required to disrupt it. Formally, my daily work is soothing, repetitive and clear. I search, categorize, collect, and edit: all acts that keep the artwork and myself moving forward. But without direction, the practice does nothing new and has the dangerous potential of reinforcing the biases I’m trying to expose. These collective bodies are normative bodies; white, slim, able, heterosexual. They are bodies that are systematically cared for and prioritized. I think this is why we were invited to address the theme of repetition for this issue of No More Potlucks. This device is not only reflected in a practice grounded in appropriation, but in the recuperation of ideology my work tries to disrupt. Even constructing pathetic characters filled with failures, interacting with one another in embarrassing ways, has its limitations. I’m motivated by the limitations of the source material and maybe even a fear of repetition (both formally and ideologically), so I continue working inside the frame. There are always new combinations that uncover new ignorances and expose new micro aggressions, reactions, and dominances. Social illnesses show up in the footage and especially in the accumulation of gestures across many sources. It’s amazing how much footage there is of women’s faces looking stunned. We can be aware of the emergence of compulsions or urges, but that doesn’t mean we can always catch impulsive responses and behaviors. My goal is to find ways in myself and my work to build investment and incentive to interrupt behaviours. I think scent accompanying my video narratives helps create ways to change a spectator’s reactions. I think the endless supply of sameness helps expose our attachments. And I hope unpredictable arrangements of familiarity welcome and prioritize difference. I developed my working methods to uncover patriarchy and whiteness as constructs. These constructs are built with benefits, all of which funnel into forgetting that we are inside them. How can we experience the consequences of inhabiting a construct that we don’t remember entering? I think your questions about neutrality in our earlier exchange answers this really well.

EK: How does the belief that neutrality exists proliferate, endure, insist on itself? 
What do you believe we already know to be true? And by that I mean, things we are conditioned, coerced, encouraged, ordered to act as if we don’t know to be true.

Cohene3Photo by: Aleesa Cohene. Manteuffelstrasse 20, Berlin

Aleesa Cohene is a Vancouver-born artist living in Los Angeles. Her work has shown in festivals and galleries internationally. She has participated in artist residencies in Canada, the Netherlands and Denmark, and in 2010 completed a fellowship at the Kunsthochschule für Medien in Cologne, Germany. She holds a Masters of Visual Studies from the University of Toronto. Her work is in the permanent collection of Oakville Galleries, Canada and in numerous private collections.

Elizabeth Knafo uses film and writing to explore the social and ecological effects of resource extraction and the colonial histories of commodity and trade. She works in research, writing, print, and documentary film.