Interview with Philomène Hoël

Benjamin Cook interviews Philomène Hoël on her projects Acting Out and Is It Your Hand Or Is It My Hand?

Benjamin Cook 10 Nov 2020

Benjamin Cook speaks to artist Philomène Hoël to accompany the online exhibition of her brilliant new work Acting Out: Stephen Dwoskin, continuing a series of works she has produced as part of her ongoing project Is It Your Hand Or Is It My Hand?, an intimate engagement with the work of the late filmmaker Stephen Dwoskin.

Acting Out is part of an ongoing series, what does Acting Out mean for you? 

It is a form of work that I developed through my practice. I think I now have five pieces of Acting Out, the first one dated 2013. It was never meant to be a series. I built one situation that eventually turned into a trauma-bonding. 

This series is probably about me being obsessed with looking at how identities move within the structures of relationships and interactions. So I repeatedly invite people to come to have a kind of a chat with me, in a sort of a set that can appear to be like an interview perhaps, or a therapy session, it’s not clear how to take it. In this work I invite the character of the researcher (looking at Henry Miller, Darragh O’Donoghue and me) around a common subject of research: Stephen Dwoskin but whatever is the situation, it always involves a complication in its relational structure.

Although it’s obvious that these filmed works are about identity and control, the particularity perhaps rests on the fact that their only aim is to use and directly confront the different identities of the subjects involved, which I like to call “costumes” so as to give them a physical quality and fantasise about them as detachable from the body. From there, my work finds strategies to play with that distance within intimate exchanges. It’s almost impossible to exchange anything if you don’t identify your interlocutor. That suspension in live performance is a social delicateness that forces everyone to bond with a collective uncertainty and as much as I am terrified by these moments I am obsessed with living them.

Indeed, the reason why I love doing these works is that they pop up when I don’t expect them and they always make me feel trapped and displaced. They are coming out of what I have in my own hands, the people, my fantasy about them and also my attachment to them. When I get to inhabit an overwhelming situation that engages with my research, I pay attention to it and use the quality of my immersion and my lack of distance from it.

The film seems to tread a fine line between staging and improvisation, can you talk about your process in terms of constructing the work?

Exactly. The delivery feels always very fluid and is meant to be received very naturally by the viewer, but it is all a strategy of fabrication. In reality, my methodology consists of working on the idea of preparation; preparing a situation that will exist for the subjects of the work. I set myself this task of arranging a series of contingencies between the subjects I am inviting, and when it’s ready I make sure that I don’t leave time and space for me to master or fully understand the output of that situation I am setting up. It’s only when the plot that I build is out of my control again that I know I can open it up live, for the camera. I work in layers on the construction of the set, the content of the event, the topics of conversation, etc and I activate every possible power game and control-switch between the elements of the work and its layers. The whole process is completely subjective of course and resembles a psychic laboratory where every fugitive thought becomes a tool to build the situation.

I try to create as many interconnections as possible between verbal abstract or physical material: a decorative object on the table and a question to my guest, a movement of camera and action. But these fictions wouldn’t exist without building a cinematic dimension with the lighting, a sophisticated set and the way to film the event. 

Also, If my interlocutors are men as it is in this film, I will try to understand their positions as one of the subjects we talk about, and concentrate on that in itself rather than on anything else, so that the notion of a relationship is going in and out of the discussion and positioning everybody as a subject of the conversation. Dwoskin is also like us, being manipulated here and there, sometimes overlooking us, sometimes losing power. It is all very much about becoming interchangeable.

To come back to your first question, Acting Out is a term I borrowed from the field of psychoanalysis that is supposed to mean the attempt to communicate an unspeakable feeling through action. Acting Out a feeling, a memory, a trauma, is always made “out” of awareness of the unconscious meaning and can therefore be actually very damaging when executed in real life, outside of the therapy session.

I am kind of creating another stage for it. However, it is maybe less the event of the “acting out” that interests me than its actual construction. That’s why you will find the structures of the film highly present and visible during the viewing, constantly intruding on our lines of thought and making it difficult for the subjects involved to display their grand ideas. I am using the structures of the set as gentle weapons against the constant desire of the subjects to rebuild the shape of identifiable collective content. Even if I like them to be gentle, I never know when a person (including myself) will feel uncomfortable enough to just leave the set or refuse certain requests. Yet my task is to push each other constantly, just to see, because we are doing a real exercise of performing our identities. Eventually, these performances are like a sandcastle, we all try to hold it until the end but it’s hard. 

In this set, I used lots of references of Dwoskin’s films to feed the fiction of ourselves. The viewer doesn’t need to know them, but if you know about Dwoskin’s work you must have seen the clumsy dressing up in Dyn Amo costumes (the red fabric of the stripper on my eyes and the two costumes of the male oppressors). The assistant made us re-enact some scenes of the film as well. The set itself was inspired by the film Tod Un Teufel and the camera movements too, which gives a completely different power dynamic and suspense to it. In the set are displayed a lot of objects and prints of Dwoskin’s: Carola’s portrait, one of his biggest loves and her dad from the Tod UnTeufel film are on the table watching us. I also inserted selected sequences of Dwoskin from his film Outside In, my favourite of his, and some of Trixi as to make them participate in the power game. 

Acting Out: Stephen Dwoskin, Philomène Hoël, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

The dynamics of the people and your relationship with them seems critical to work so can I ask how do you select your subjects and collaborators?

It is always a very specific meeting and context. In this last work, as I was included in the subjects on screen, I came up with the idea to invite other women artists to replace me behind the set, with a very precise set of instructions. Luli Perez was replacing me as a camera director and Marieke Bernard Berkel as a set director. I also used her very strong identity and copied it on stage, so I dyed my hair blonde like hers for the set and dressed the same way as her. Eventually I created a double of myself off the stage that was able to control me and the guests on stage.

I keep everything very simple for each guest on or off stage and make sure everyone knows approximately what they are doing but not what the other is really doing so that we can get a sense of ‘meeting’ live. As much as I control everyone beforehand through the instruction-set, I give control back to everyone on set by their acting/reacting following their own will. It is eventually a proper game of control which simply aims to diffuse power if we can say this implement.

Acting Out: Stephen Dwoskin particularly comes out of your ongoing project Is It Your Hand Or Is It My Hand? in which you are working in dialogue with the work of filmmaker Stephen Dwoskin. Can you talk about your interest in Dwoskin and the affinities you feel with him?

That question is the object of this film too: what is my relationship to Dwoskin is completely exposed there as a question, but it is also one for my two male guests. 

In the interview, I keep asking them ‘who are the closest male persons to Dwoskin?’ and they struggle to find a name. Indeed, Dwoskin’s different kinds of involvement with and for women was very well known, they were friends, subjects, partners. On the other hand, men were rarer around him as his work was raising more problems toward men, which interested me. Somehow in this film, I am trying to reveal to the two researchers that they may be the closest to him, so close that they can’t even see it. At the end of the performance, I could even leave the set and let them alone, talking about Dwoskin forever and nothing would stop them, not the alarm clock nor switching off the light. Absolutely nothing of that was organised, I just had to react to them forgetting me in the middle.

But, you see, in a way my leaving wasn’t really a disappearance and they knew it. My body of work is about the process of dissolving oneself into another, one identity into another, creating systems and structures to manage the resistances and difficulties raised from such attempts and they both know my work very well or I believe so. 

I don’t know if I can be objective about my relationship with Dwoskin. He was a man, I am a woman, he was disabled, I am not disabled, he belongs to the generation before me. Some funny common facts perhaps, like we both initially studied graphic design and we both love it. We both moved from our country to live in London. I arrived just 2 years after he died and never got a chance to meet him. I also never heard of him before my tutor Tai Shani at the RCA told me that the work I was showing her was just like his. And from there, I ended up opening a relationship with him through this PhD. The real thing we may share is an existential relationship to the world driven by the impossible desire to “be” the other rather than to “possess” it. It’s a difficult relationship as it involves the suffering of being in one given body yet genuinely identifying with the rest standing outside of us, and this can only be through watching. The idea and feeling of having something that isn’t right, we are seeking to be this something else and could be anything really. We just believe what we see and become what we watch. So basically, you can be sure that we will use any tools of creation we have in our hands to dissolve ourselves within the other and live that impossible deformation of the self, as an ideal place of finding ourselves. Why? We would both have very different backgrounds to it, both uneasy, but my main interest isn’t so much ‘why?’ but where this initial desire takes us to materialise it, how we reinvent the relationship between the camera, the subjects, the audience, what it involves conceptually, visually, psychologically to undertake such a work. Because obviously the performed camera seems to be the most powerful tool that he and I found to manage that magic effect for and upon us. All the vocabulary of cinema is full of brain tricks to help fabricate that moving identity. I don’t think we are really using the camera to film the other as much as we are using it as a body to try to intrude upon the other body somehow. The camera becomes the structure of the relationship by having the privilege of standing in the middle of us and our subject. And I am sure that Dwoskin would be jealous of me using that new camera-phone that sleeps right in the middle of our intimacy day and night to make new films.

That dissolution of identities through a camera-relationship or any other tool available to us – he used also photomontage while I use programmation –  is a fantasised place that we both seek to create: I call that impossible desire a question: “Is it my hand or is it your hand?”.

Such performed fantasies induce difficult responses though due to the loss of control and power existing within relational structures. What happens to us if I look at you through the camera for more than two weeks? (Dowskin’s experiment in Central bazaar) And how do you feel if I ask you to play a mad person for an interview because you are an actor, but I tell you that the interviewer believes you are coming with a real mental illness? Can you still play that for me just because I ask you to? What happens to your sense of empathy and ethics? We are quickly dealing with more than a desire but a full array of resistances; rejection, repulsion, confusion, anxiety; all repressed desires that turn the space of the screenings into a performative space that displaces the artwork out of the screen.

And that is the serious place where both our bodies of work meet perhaps: a kiss between the screen and its audience, or in other words a feeling of being right in the middle of a relationship.

Outside In, Stephen Dwoskin, 1981.

I’m interested to hear more about your influences and what you look to for inspiration

Frankly, lots of encounters inspired me from a very early age, characters standing out in my everyday life, always giving me that feeling that the fiction of our relationship is only visible to me.

The first ones that made me understand everything were teachers on stage back in school. It was the first time I could spend hours looking at incredible characters on stage, all very old school and scary, yet incredibly attractive, and I was convinced that they were coming everyday to perform their character in these prepared costumes just for me and this bunch of kids that didn’t give a shit. I believed that only I secretly knew what they were trying to do with us, turning me into their intimate spectator. That experience of a privileged relationship or exchange as a viewer-performer from a living context always felt like a strange displacement to me that carried uneasy ideas of betrayal as well as bliss.

Of course, this extreme bond would work even better with characters on screen or on images because it’s too easy for me to cross the screen. I directly bond with the film as the character itself, a kind of morphing giant body I can be in. Some filmmakers exploit that extension better than others like Dwoskin: I am every frame he wants me to be.

I think that all the important decisions that I have made in my life were driven by a character, the move to Switzerland in my 20’s, then to the UK in my 30’s. I won’t reveal them because I am too shy and many are still alive, but l was going to apply to the Polish Lodz Film school just because I was in love with the film Ski Scenes with Franz Klammer by Zbigniew Rybczynski and Bogdan Dziworski. Instead I went to the RCA partly because the polish school required me to speak their language. I also never wanted to do a PhD, yet I am doing one right now just because I wanted to meet Dwoskin.

In the beginning of my practice, I felt close to and impressed by the ones of Sophie Calle and the early work of Orlan. I became very attracted to Beckett’s work too, which I discovered late. But I have been inspired by so many artworks, the ones of the painter Madelon Vriesendorp or the German artist Martin Kippenberger, the conversations of the Swiss artists Fishli and Weiss or the photographs of the artist Natacha Lesueur, the architecture of Rudolf Ogliati or the films of Gillian Wearing.

However, it’s true that the days I put my leather jacket on and walk in the street, I often imagine Jean Genet, Kathy Acker, R.D Laing, Stephen Dwoskin and my grandma walking by my side. We kind of make sense to me. Herve Guibert and Isadora Duncan have joined the crew recently. I watch a lot of films, and forget a lot of them too but many filmmakers’ works have made me lose my shape several times – John Cassavetes, Christophe Honore, Maïwenn, Harmony Korine, Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, Jean Resnais, Chantal Akerman. I don’t know who I am anymore when I watch the films of Andrzej Zulawski, and I bless that repetitive feeling.


Philomène Hoël (b.1985/France) is an artist living and working in London. She is a practice-based PhD Candidate at the University of Reading in partnership with LUX, with a proposal titled “Is it your hand or is it my hand?” dialogue with the artist and filmmaker Stephen Dwoskin (1939 – 2012). She runs ‘Out of One’s Cinema‘, a program of experimental screenings. Co-founder of the exhibition program flat deux, (since 2015). Recent shows include: “Cherry Pickers“, Collective show, Podium Luxembourg (2019); “Show Me Love“, Solo, Casino Luxembourg (2018); “Linda Linda Linda“, Solo, Carreau du Temple, Paris (2018); Dynamo Club, Solo, Chalton Gallery, London (2018); “Deja Vu”

Collective show, Chalton Gallery, London (2018) ; “The Second Heart“, Solo, Doc Paris (2017); Keep It Longer, Solo, Gallery SO, London (2017) ;“I wanna live in a world that I am used to”, Horse Hospital, London (2016); “The entertainer” at “It’s not the digging, it’s the dirt”,  Art Licks Weekend, London (2016); “You lonely white sugar on a sunny balcony”, Solo, flat deux, Balfron Tower, London (2016); “Hats off”, Ashley Gallery, Berlin (2016); “Knot Knot”, flat deux, Balfron Tower, London (2016), “Don’t be dead”, Solo, Kunst(Zeug)Haus, Rapperwill (2014); “Is there an opening here?” Curation, Espace Echallens, Lausanne; “The moment you know, you know, you know”, Schwarzwaldallee Basel (2013)

Featured image: Acting Out: Stephen Dwoskin, Philomène Hoël, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Text by Benjamin Cook and Philomene Hoël. Original post 10 Nov, at LUX

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