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3-channel video installation, 35 min. English.

During a sensitivity training held in Chicago, nine characters with varying degrees of aptitude and motivation rehearse symptoms of and methods for avoiding ambiguous labor (work outside one’s job description). The prevailing question for the characters is whether to ‘lean in’ or to resist through strategies of withdrawal, redaction, and retreat. The curriculum is complicated by scenes drawn from the 1954 film Salt of the Earth, a semi-fictional account of a strike at a New Mexico zinc mine wherein the status of the women’s domestic labor is viewed through the strike’s racial and economic urgencies. The group is drawn into this contestation by the film’s soundtrack and a woman attempting to escape becoming its protagonist. Ambiguous labor leaks between the nine characters as they confront the social instruments for the expression of complaint, anger, and suffering. Some learn to feign surprise and incompetence and to conspicuously demonstrate fatigue. The Startled Faction (A Sensitivity Training) proposes a social space of redress through historical and imagined scenes.

Catherine Sullivan, born in 1968 in Los Angeles, USA, is a Chicago-based artist who creates work with ensembles in film and theater. Solo exhibitions, collaborations, performances, and films have been presented at international art institutions, galleries, and film festivals. She is an associate professor in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago.

Catherine Sullivan in Conversation

30 August 2018
Ocula Magazine

Catherine Sullivan’s artistic practice crosses genres and histories of art, theatre, movement, and performance with poetry, literature, sound, and popular culture, taking the actor as medium in the process. A former actor herself, Sullivan attended the California Institute of the Arts and the Art Center College of Design where she studied under Mike Kelley. To experience Sullivan’s works is to become immersed in a visual composition made up of various performers, a range of cultural objects, social and political references, and plays of power that overlap and fold into one another with both appropriated and new gestures, symbols, and sounds that combine and permeate a new set of possibilities and questions. The compositions are saturated with historical connections and speculative visualization.

Fawz Kabra: How would you describe your role within the group dynamic when working with performers, actors, and collaborators to produce your video installations?
Catherine Sullivan: Many earlier projects were devised with the ensemble through improvisation and different kinds of scripts. […] With THE STARTLED FACTION, I knew I wouldn’t have the kind of time with the performers, so I wrote a screenplay hoping that it would make rehearsals as economical as possible. I’ve always recorded final ‘settings’ of the material in rehearsal, and in this case I actually used those recordings to compose without the actors there. There was no surplus of material, and while I missed the volume of possibility that comes from devising, it felt good that the actors had a sense of the whole project in advance.

FK: How did you develop the script for THE STARTLED FACTION? Could you talk about the roles you constructed for your performers in relation to themes of identity, gender, labor, repetition, redaction, and withdrawal, which the work addresses?

CS: It was a case where I knew who I wanted to work with, precisely. I knew the work of the cast very well; some people I’d worked with before. So, a lot of it was really driven by their presences and specialties and how that particular group of characters would read.
It isn’t important that you know what character someone is playing, but more that you know what their function is or what they are coping with given the conceit of these lessons. Two of the characters have their pathologies reversed or mixed up and the other characters train and simulate. When I looked at the ensemble – the gender balance, and also the racial balance – I thought the characters could be perceived as a specific group of people with specific physicalities and motivations, but also as a random group.
What I liked about the impression of a random group is that, often in these sensitivity training scenarios, there’s a kind of random feeling that comes from being with people you’ve just met or are going to spend a short amount of time with. In these one-off situations, you are asked to function as a group, thinking together. I find it productively estranged and intimate at the same time.

FK: Collective power and transformation are recurring motifs in your work. I am very interested in hearing about how actors must transform in order to ‘survive’?

CS: I think I’m interested both in how actors are contagious and can conjure different kinds of space between people, and how acting is a means to see behaviors and habits in historical time. I am also intrigued by things like Elias Canetti’s account of hysteria, mania, and melancholia as transformations that resist power or being eaten. Ironically, I had an acting teacher who compared acting to big game hunting, but I identified more with the creative flight of prey. The issue of survival is more about the problem of self-possession, compounded by convention and cultural style.
I’ve always thought that actors are in a unique position to make observations about culture because they reanimate what they absorb and embody tropes in peculiar ways; I’ve always been interested in style as something that binds some actors but sets others free.

FK: How have particular discursive genres like dance, academia, sociology, testimony, and social justice – and I’m pulling from THE STARTLED FACTION’s description here – informed the work?

CS: There were a lot of direct conversations with women about their experiences, and other testimonies that came from reading comment threads in articles about women and labor. Some of this led me to discourses around emotional, invisible, and gendered labor. Arlie Hochschild’s book “The Managed Heart” resonated with something I was calling ‘ambiguous labor’ – labor that leaks through the workplace often at the expense of women and people of color. I had a long-standing interest in left-wing dance from the 1930s and choreographers like Anna Sokolow, Sophie Maslow, and Jane Dudley, who were explicitly concerned with workers’ rights and engaged with their concerns through abstraction and dance aesthetics associated with that period.
I’m interested in the interaction between aesthetic and political motivations in art and how they sometimes obscure each other in productive ways. THE STARTLED FACTION simulates symptoms of ambiguous labor and develops them in terms of scale and visibility; sometimes it looks like dance. The female characters are coping with the cruel possibility of redaction and withdrawal to resist ambiguous labor, and the ‘curriculum’ in the sensitivity training is developed around those possibilities.

FK: How have you placed particular histories and their products together in THE STARTLED FACTION, and how do you bring to light various cultural issues in a language that is pointedly artistic? I also wonder how the legacy of European avant-garde theatre, dance, and performance fits as both a subject matter and mode of working in your practice in general.

CS: I’ve always tried to locate the work in stylistic contradictions between modes of performance that are considered to be objective – and maybe in some sense, more politically viable – and artistic impulses that are highly theatricalized, my belief being that both are prone to convention. I’ve tried to look at this in terms of my own baggage, education, and preferences over the years, but I think people still hold assumptions about what political art should look like and how going deeper into the theatrical dimensions of representation threatens the political immediacy of artistic work.
I’ve tried to create space in THE STARTLED FACTION to test the viability of assumptions about how politics or social concern is transformed into art, and that has meant allowing influences that might be ideologically conflicting to play through each other. The gradual estrangement between visual art, performance art, and theatre in the 20th century always interested me as a symptom of an inherently troubled relationship between people performing and people watching them perform.

FK: When developing THE STARTLED FACTION, did the behavior of participating performers transform what you initially set out to produce?

CS: In terms of scripting and composition, one challenge was the material I created with Cristal Sabbagh, who works in a Butoh milieu. She conjures specific physical states and her movement follows from deep concentration and absorption in them. It was a challenge to give her the necessary space and duration to create such movement and to stage it for the camera within the confines of what was supposed to happen in a given scene. She was totally responsive to modification, but there were so many great things coming out of the rehearsals when she could work in an open duration.
There was the problem of what had to be covered in terms of a script that also had dialogue. Movement forms which had their own internal structures had to be set with dialogue and the film’s coverage of each scene. My previous approach was always to shoot in longer takes using a Steadicam, but there needed to be much more discipline in this case given time and resources.

FK: The work contains dramatic content set against imagery, sounds, and speech inscribed with sociopolitical histories. I’m thinking of the appearances of the Domino sugar bag, or the protest plaques that read, ‘we are tired of living in debt’; there are references to gun ownership, and Indigeneity, too. The soundtrack seems to act as a set of instructions for the performers – it includes musical and audio excerpts of crowds, characters, and protesters from the film SALT OF THE EARTH, and the repeated use of the song “The Nitty Gritty” by Shirley Ellis.
Could you describe how these histories come into contact with one another, and how you resolve them, in an artwork that lives in the present?

CS: I rely a lot on anachronism. There is one character in the film played by Zachary Nicol, who is conspicuously younger than the rest of the characters but brings in a lot of older references. He has a monologue written by Ira Gershwin called ‘Modernistic Moe’, which lampoons left-wing dance because its abstraction and modernity alienates the very masses it wants to reach. What you see in the film is this young, very contemporary-looking man, speaking Ira Gershwin and getting behind it. He also initiates the dance sequence for “Nitty Gritty”, which is a song from 1963. There’s coherence in what he says given his function in the piece, but an incongruity in the sense that the youngest person is animating some of the oldest voices.
The ‘curriculum’ in the film also comes from the 1954 movie SALT OF THE EARTH, and I created arrangements from the film’s soundtrack. This becomes part of an overall texture populated by bodies that live in the present and animate voices and sounds of a contestation from the past that reminds us of unfinished business for the future. So, there’s a kind of communion between the past and the present through the specific bodies of the performers, and hopefully this creates a unique space detailing a past and present that are highly relevant to one another.

This interview between Catherine Sullivan and Ocula contributor Fawz Kabra was first published in Ocula Magazine on 30 August 2018. It is published now with permission of Ocula.

Production Catherine Sullivan, Ginger Farley, Shawn Lent. Production company Chicago Dancemakers Forum (Chicago, USA). Written and directed by Catherine Sullivan. Cinematography Raoul Germain. Editing Catherine Sullivan. Music Sol Kaplan. Sound design Catherine Sullivan. Sound Ben Kolak. Production design Catherine Sullivan. Costumes Catherine Sullivan. Make-up Marcus Geeter. Casting Catherine Sullivan. Production manager Sophia Rhee. With Cristal Sabbagh (Becomingmystic 2), Carrie Louise Abernathy (Priestx3), Kristin Van Loon (Priestx2), Coco Elysses (Priestx1), Zachary Nicol (Becomingmystic 3), Beata Pilch (Female Mystic), Laura Crotte (Jodie), Democco Atcher (Male Mystic), Michael Garvey (Becomingmystic 1).


2000: Unspoken Evil, Rites of Ascension and Obscurity (video installation). 2001: Manic, Hysteric, Degraded, Refined (video installation). 2002: Five Economies, Big Hunt (film installation). 2003: ‘Tis pity She’s A Fluxus Whore (film installation), Ice Floes of Franz Joseph Land (film installation). 2004: The Chittendens (with Sean Griffin, film installation). 2007: Triangle of Need (with Sean Griffin, Dylan Skybrook and Kunle Afolayan, film installation). 2009: Lulu, Or, to what End does the Bourgeoisie Need Despair (video installation, 28 min.). 2011: The Last Days of British Honduras (with Farhad Sharmini, film installation). 2012: The Last Days of British Honduras (with Farhad Sharmini, video installation, 47 min., Forum Expanded 2012). 2015: Afterword Via Fantasia (with Charles Gaines, Sean Griffin and George Lewis, film installation). 2016: Nest, or, Eternal Resting (with Teatr Opera Buffa, film installation), Afterword Via Fantasia (video installation, 97 min.). 2018: The Startled Faction (A Sensitivity Training).

Photo: © Catherine Sullivan

Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
  • Logo des Programms NeuStart Kultur