IF I WOKE UP ONE DAY
Spatial elaborations from another world.
What would happen if the world woke up one day in a different place than usual?
If I woke up one day is the Living Room column in which six artists will be asked to experiment with new ways of thinking about space, both temporal and physical, in relation to the concept of limits.
Sabrina Melis, Habena
2019 | FullHD video, color, sound – 8’13”
Habena is a film in three acts that invites the viewer to find the connection between its different parts. The video progresses over a stratified timeframe: in each individual scene, time flows independently, but the sequence of scenes in its entirety describes the transition from what has not yet reached maturity to what is no longer useful, in search of clues that help make this evolution comprehensible. Melis questions whether something in between has occurred. She focuses on those elements which can easily be lost or misunderstood along the way, simply because we tend to concentrate only on the arrival point, the result.
Construction tools and building materials are the protagonists of the first chapter of Habena. These objects, which have not yet reached the ‘maturity’ linked to their function, come to life in a space created by 3-D software. The interlude becomes a testimony which unites the first and last part of the film. It is inspired by the Tsukubai: a natural rock basin present in certain Zen gardens that collects any water which overflows during handwashing.
In the last part of the video, a common object which has completely lost its original function provides information related to the material of which it is composed. By analysing its surface, we are able to understand its provenance.
Camilla Compagni: I recently read Artistic Bitches and Curatorial Bastards, a conversation between Claire Fontaine and Jens Hoffmann published in 2016 in The Exhibitionist. They discuss what a long-term collaboration between an artist and a curator entails as they continue to work on projects that vary greatly from one to the next.
I often reflect upon how when I work on a text or project, a considerable part of the dialogue with the artist is inevitably left out. At the same time, I believe that what remains submerged is important to provide us with a deeper knowledge of the artist: it is precisely what remains in between the lines which may become an inspiration for new projects. Through our conversation in this digital space — Manifattura Tabacchi’s Living Room — we have an opportunity to reflect on your work, recording a dialogue which would normally take place behind the scenes.
Sabrina Melis: I think the most interesting thing about this is that we are meeting on a fairly regular basis. Working together multiple times helps sanction the trust we have in each other, it allows our relationship to deepen. In this case, our knowledge allows us to tackle a project from a distance for this digital space, and to speed up decisions that are sometimes quite complex. We also share fears or doubts which go beyond the work we present here. Our conversation would not otherwise be possible without this base as a stepping stone. The fact that we know one another allows ideas that had remained buried to be explored in regards to a work which you have been familiar with from its outset, when certain parts had not yet been imagined. So, thank you, Camilla, for inviting me.
CC: Before we get started, tell us what Habena is.
SM: Perhaps it is an invisible entity that hides its appearance but not its intentions. Perhaps it is the feeling that there are connections between things even if we can’t say exactly what they are, or why they exist. Perhaps it is the trace of a dream which one remembers having, without being able to remember its details.
Habena is a Latin word with multiple translations. Whatever the context, it defines an element with the ability to hold things together. The noun and its intrinsic quality inspired me to imagine a movie about common objects and how a transition which renders them similar to humans and similar in the obsolescence of their efficiency.
The three videos which comprise Habena, despite their apparent autonomy, together form a complex narrative with a non-linear time frame. What is recorded is the passage from what has not yet reached its full purpose to what was once useful, yet no longer is. The interaction between the three parts expresses the connection of the elements and suggests the possibility that there are intermediate moments which have not been filmed.
We must question ourselves to find out whether in between there is (or has been) something else: we must connect the clues to continue to read and imagine worlds. (CC)
The protagonists of Untitled, the first chapter of Habena, are work machinery and raw materials. These are objects which have yet to reach the efficiency linked to their function. These objects come alive in an intangible space created with 3-D modelling software.
A crane, a cement mixer, bricks, and pipes move in a padded virtual space, with no references to the real world. There is no trace of a human presence, no one to manoeuver the machines, no one to intervene or guide their actions: we are witnesses of the construction of something whose contours we cannot envisage. We are forced to be in an unproductive state in which we practice observing, and let go the constant tension that compels us to reach for a goal in every aspect of our existence. (cc)
CC: I was able to watch this first act of Habena live. I think it would have had a profoundly different impact had I first watched it now, alone and in the intimacy of my own home. I remember being struck by the absence of any human presence. In a moment in which we are all simultaneously experiencing isolation, in lockdown, might this have a different impact when viewing Habena?
SM: I believe so, it probably does make less of a dramatic impression presently than it would have otherwise. During lockdown, we’re used to seeing empty streets and avoiding physical contact. The absence of any human presence, which you noticed in the video, is a consequence of my disinterest towards the human figure, the presence of machinery, on the other hand, fascinates me as machines are fruits of human ingenuity.
CC: Yes, the protagonists of this video are work machinery. To me they evoke imagery connected to productivity and optimising time. What are your considerations on the performance demands that condition human activity? I think this aspect comes through even more intensely in this moment of forced pause.
SM: The idea of optimising time is something I am constantly aware of, erasing and slotting in appointments and errands for me has almost become more gratifying for me than actually doing them. I no longer make a great distinction between that which we expect from machines and that which we expect of ourselves. This ultra-production, however, as we know, is never a good thing: this present, collective pause is helping us to understand that there are many other ways of dealing with life in a way that is more sustainable, both economically and psychologically.
CC: It’s true, the boundaries between man and machine are evermore subtle and this conditions us. Devices designed to help us be more efficient in some cases can completely replace us, yet, at the same time, we seem to do our best to remove even that which makes us irreplaceable in spite of it all. Which brings me to my next question: why did you choose to work on the video using 3-D software? The space you created is a microcosm in which objects have their own agency, they build something in absolute autonomy.
SM: The machines present in this space execute and repeat actions without any apparent purpose. The crane lifts pipes, which it then lets fall: to me it is a reference to failure. The cement mixer mixes bricks that have already been shaped. Each machine has its own rhythm, but they do not reflect upon what the final result will be — the fact is that the result is only to repeat their actions. They do not have anything to build.
I chose the language of 3-D graphics, typical of simulations, precisely because it allowed me to create a new place and to distance myself from ordinary environments and functions.
CC: Does the repetitive nature of the actions your objects perform shed light on the limits machines have compared to humans? The absence of a real need, of thought?
SM: I am not sure if I would call them ‘limits’, in some cases they could be considered desirable characteristics, depending on the situation. The lack of purpose is something that humans do not easily accept, perhaps we would rather be more like machines, at times. I’m thinking of those jobs/tasks (I actually like these) that are so repetitive that they annihilate thoughts.
Interlude is the video that physically and conceptually unites the first and last part of Habena. Its different languages, from the shooting to the 3-D modelling to 2D animation, tell a story and are set in an intermediate time in which the presence of the hand is a sort of narrative thread between apparently discontinuous scenes. The first subject of this video is a cement brick which has lost its original function and has found a new one. It has transformed, unawares, into a tsukubai, a natural rock basin found in Zen gardens whose function is to collect water that overflows from handwashing. The object is an instrument, it has a definite purpose, and the hands are what activates it, reminding us how our quotidian relationship with what surrounds us is mediated by gestures. Hands are therefore able to autonomously continue the narrative in the second part of the video. They tell stories, and communicate. (CC)
CC: I’m under the impression that this video, which wasn’t originally planned for in the first version of Habena, has a special meaning within the film. Interlude is not just an element of continuity as one would expect. Its use of alternating languages makes me think that it is a translation of something else.
SM: Interludio responds to the need to create a unifying moment between the first and third part of the film, as they are very different from one another both in language and content. Then, as you say, it has become something more because if the central part of a video is where the story usually develops, in this case it actually becomes a pause composed of brief scenes. The fragments alternate in search of an identity. So while Interlude holds together the other two videos, it also is able to tell its own story.
CC: Let’s talk about time: this work has changed compared to how it was in its first version, it has evolved and transformed. I like that a work whose narration is centered around a temporal process has been in and of itself an object of mutation. I imagine that the propensity to intervene is emblematic not only of your rapport with this very work, but also characteristic of your artistic process?
SM: Exactly, this part wasn’t initially planned, but, as often happens, certain things which had been planned some time ago are no longer consonant. It is not the first time I have gone back to working on pieces I had considered finished. I have not come to terms with this constant temptation to modify things because it starts to feel like, at least to me, I don’t have any work that is actually completed. At the same time however, I think it is pretty normal to look at a piece again after some time and recognize that certain aspects have still more potential, I like to believe that these things evolve with us.
CC: Hands, even when they are not shown, are the protagonists of the video together with bricks. It almost seems as though they make their appearance in the middle chapter as ‘intermediate objects’.
SM: Hands are the only human body part which appears in Habena’s three episodes. They are a symbol of creation, but also of use and destruction. This dual power which hands possess is inherent in the elements present in the video, as you point out, even in their absence.
CC: The action performed by hands in the video remains mostly implied, and even when it is declared, it still is not immediately comprehensible. Do they communicate with sign language? What are they saying?
SM: Yes, I chose a font which writes using sign language, but the choice was not connected so much to its function as to its form. The hands thus recount a brief dream of mine, and what I try to convey with the images is the sensation that I remember feeling. This is part of the reason the scenes seem disconnected from one another, because that is what happens when we dream. We go from one scenario to the next, suddenly and illogically.
Indestructible stones – a superficial documentary
The protagonist of Indestructible stones – a superficial documentary, the last act of Habena, is a crumpled tablecloth which, in the video, assumes the semblance of a foreign object. Though recognisable, it is completely taken out of context: it is not where we imagine it should be, it has lost its function and it will not be able to regain it because time and neglect have caused its irreparable deterioration.
Nonetheless, the object is still able to provide information connected to the material from which it is made. Its surface, subjected to careful analysis, reveals the world from whence it came and what destiny it holds. (CC)
CC: This last video is the only one you wanted to have a title. I imagine this choice has a specific significance, as does the title itself.
SM: Yes, the last act of Habena has a title which came to me spontaneously.
The idea of a superficial documentary does not refer only to the fact that in the video I analyse the material of the object’s surface, it also refers to the type of research that was conducted. The definitions which compose the text which is superimposed onto the images are internet search results where I settle for the first result on the list. From the first text which I read in relation to ‘plasticity’ I chose a word trusting in hypertextual references, without following a definite trajectory. With this method, one which we all use daily, I formed an unplanned analysis which from the first definition brought me to ‘time’, a concept which is actually very profound.
CC: In one of the first questions I asked you to discuss the choice of working with 3-D modelling software. Here you chose a language which is the exact opposite, the documentary. I wonder what you are trying to represent with this passage in light of the spatial and temporal evolution of Habena.
SM: This language is very dear to me, and in this context, it seemed an appropriate way to finish a discourse that had started with a completely fabricated scene. I experienced this situation myself, by chance, on the island of Milos. I often find myself shooting scrupulously and these images have allowed me to create a small archive over time. They are scenes that almost never get used in my projects, but which I take a look at every so often. I am very attached to the movement of images and their sounds which complete them.
CC: The subject of this video is a residue, something that lost its purpose but has not ceased to exist and communicate information. The theme of an object’s obsolescence seems very apt for our times, I would like to ask you what your thoughts are on the matter and if this subject specifically concerns your research.
SM: The subject of obsolescence does cross through my research. The use or non-use of things provides information which allows us to understand their history. It vaguely resembles archeological research. The difference is in the subjects upon which the investigation is concentrated, which, in the case of my work, do not contain any historic or artistic value.
CC: I like that metaphor, this perhaps has something to do with another type of activity, taking care of objects?
SM: To some extent, yes, care as in respect and observation. I try to go beyond the functions which are imposed to try and find the personality within objects. I believe that every object has something to say if we take care to look beyond its surface.
sabrina melis on instagram
Born in Milano in 1986, Sabrina Melis is an Italian artist and designer. She lives and works between Alghero (Sardinia) and Carrara (Tuscany).
Melis graduated from the Department of Architecture and Design in Alghero with a degree in Design in 2011 and a Master’s degree in Communication Design in 2013. In 2014, she began researching Multimedial Languages. In 2019, Melis completed a Master’s in Multimedia Arts with a concentration on Cinema and Video at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milano. She is currently a doctorate student at the Department of Architectura and Design in Alghero and is a professor of Multimedial Languages at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Carrara.
Melis is interested in design and new technology and her work focuses on the theme of ‘human living’ which she explores from various angles. Melis concentrates on all that has to do with uses and function, habits, and human transit in spaces both physical and virtual. By analysing her memory of these movements, she questions their purpose, searching for traces which reconduct to a universal movement.
Melis’ work often uses fictive narratives to combine facts and real information with hypothetical realities through the use of various mediums, mainly videos and installations. It has been exhibited in the following galleries and festivals: biennial De la Jeune Création Contemporaine in Mulhouse, Triennale Design Museum in Milano, Wrong digital art biennial (online), Screensaver Gallery (online), Columbia University (New York City), and FRAC Corse (Corsica).
In 2018, Melis won the Premio Nazionale delle Arti for Electronic Art.
Camilla Compagni (1991) is a curator who currently lives and works in Torino.
She graduated in 2017 in Visual Arts at the Alma Mater Studiorum – Università di Bologna and chose in 2019 to integrate her studies by attending Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s Course for Curators, ‘Campo’.
Since 2018, she has curated various projects in collaboration with independent art centers. Recent projects include: burning, burning (Brace Brace, Milano, 2019), Little we see is ours (Zecchini Musica, Verona, 2019) and TBD Ultramagazine (2020).
Compagni has been is invited to lecture at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Verona for courses in Languages of Contemporary Art and Contemporary Art History. She is a contributor to the Exibart review.
camilla compagni on instagram