In Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence, Qara Köz, also known as “Lady Black Eyes” is a Mughal princess whose seductive powers tame both powerful kings and crowds, but whose beauty and wit are labeled as sorcery. Although one cannot ignore the author’s male perspective prone to fantasy, Rushdie’s character nevertheless is just one example from many independent and brilliant women, whether fictional or real, who have been viewed through the double standard of witchcraft.
Berlin-based artist Lotte Meret Effinger delved into researching how the identity of witches has been politically instrumentalised from the Middle Ages up to contemporary interpretations in Hollywood movies or cosmetics advertisements. PETRIe contributor Sorana Serban sat down with Meret Effinger to find out more about her attempts to challenge conventions through art and music.
Sorana Serban: In the video work “Supernature” (2014) you comment on contemporary notions of beauty and female emancipation by exploring the representation of witches in popular culture. Where does your interest in witches come from?
Lotte Meret Effinger: It started by reading Silvia Federici's “Caliban and the Witch”, peeking into the “Malleus Maleficarum” and stumbling over theorists such as Rachel Moseley and Barbara Creed. Being highly inspired by their ideas, I linked those readings with the witch interpretations from popular culture I grew up with and my view on feminism. I was particularly interested in the various needs for identification that the witch figure fulfilled across history, being sometimes used for propaganda, but also as a symbol for emancipation.
SS: That’s fascinating. Could you explain more?
LME: The witch has long been portrayed as the outsider, whether as a monster or as a resistance fighter. Many political, religious or social movements used this figure to establish their identity by defining the “other” and it is amazing to see how these various interpretations reach out to the contemporary use of the word “femininity” in regard to emancipation. This recalls the complex process of defining gender, power and desire.
SS: How do you relate to the trope of the wonder woman as portrayed in Hollywood movies?
LME: The supernatural ability in these productions is mostly articulated through appearance: the sparkle in the eyes, the shiny make-up and outfits. The primary meaning of the word “magic” has been replaced by the idea of a seductive allure, generating an ideal of femininity and validating a respectable white hegemonic class. A postfeminist concept of girl power clashes therefore with the conventional definition of femininity raising questions such as: Why is there a need to visualize an independent female character as a magical creature from another planet? How did emancipation become such a glamorous thing?
SS: Both producers and consumers, women are involved in the flow and accumulation of capital. In your works you frequently replicate the sleek aesthetics of beauty ads. Why do you use the framework of advertising?
LME: Because it is a symbolic order I am confronted with daily and feel ambivalent about. Phrases associated with independence and emancipation such as “must-have accessory” are actually used as a trigger for the movement of capital in a global market. In my visual researches I cross-link contemporary consumer culture with historic elements and use these visual components as a medium to transfer radical philosophy, thoughts and personal questions. In my works I try to build characters who emphasize this ambivalence, who are open to subjective interpretations and conversations.
SS: In your view, how can artists challenge established relationships of power in a (still) patriarchal society?
LME: That´s what I am trying to figure out together with everyone interested in contributing to my work.
SS: Many of your works involve a lot of people. What does your art gain from these collaborations?
LME: The basis of my work is exchanging thoughts, arguments, fights, strategies, inspirations and questions. Collaborations just make these artworks possible, and hopefully communicative, more powerful.
SS: The sound in your videos is highly experimental. How did you come to that?
LME: The composer is Florian Meyer aka. “Don´t DJ”, member of the “Durian Brothers” and “Institut für Feinmotorik”. We met while DJ-ing at the same artsy parties and realised we share an interest for art and theory. Our collaborations allow for sound and visual elements to merge and build a strong expression.
SS: Talking about collaborations, you are also involved in creating the graphics for a music label. How does that influence your practice as an artist?
LME: SEXES is a music label, but I would rather define it as a platform with the goal to connect radical theories with popular culture and experimental artistic research. The output can be a music record such as “Authentic Exoticism”, our latest release, but could just as well be a publication or symposium. I founded this label together with Florian Meyer and involved graphic designer Marco Buetikofer in the process of finding a visual language for SEXES. Working on this project is another part of my artistic practice, therefore it influences me a lot.
SS: Graphic Design seems to have a special place among your interests, as you have also developed an illustration book titled “This is so much fun”. Is graphic design more fun or more work?
LME: I started to illustrate this book as an assignment for one of Sam de Groot’s classes at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie. It started as a comment on working as a student in an art school and being confronted with a capitalised-creative-section where everyone expects you to have “FUN” and be crazy artistic while often working in a context resembling financial-horror-scenarios. I studied graphic design and also attended classes on media and fine art. As a result, I don`t distinguish between fields. My artistic output can be a video, a book, an installation, a mix-tape. It´s more about the question, which medium fits a certain content?
SS: In “Rebel Girl – Push it, Push it real good!¿!” you performed on stage and re-enacted it for the “Jungs, hier kommt der Masterplan” exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel last year. What role does performance play in your practice?
LME: Performance is still an exciting medium for me because of the open-field of what can happen while I perform. In photography or video one controls each step and monitors each impression. That is impossible with performance, which makes it very exciting. I want to continue to perform to add this unpredictable element into my work.
SS: What are you preparing next?
LME: A symposia with the Label “SEXES”, a re-enact Documentary and a publication with the writer Isabel Mehl called “appearance”.
Words: Sorana Serban
Artwork: Lotte Meret Effinger