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Can the Monster Sing?
Katayoun Arian speaks with artist Cihad Caner. Their conversation explores the themes, research and narrative strategies in Caner’s ‘Demonst(e)rating the Untamable Monster’, a two-channel video installation. Using motion capture technology, music and sound, two animated monsters speak, sing and hum a rhythmic and embodied tale of resistance, fear and hostility, addressing issues of representation and the right to speak. Three voices alternate between two monster bodies, taking upon themselves the task to reflect on the fantastical and fabricated category of the ‘monster’ – the so-called Other – and that which is known as the unknown and originates from the outside. In doing so, they remind us: Can we become hospitable to the monster? Can the monster sing?
Katayoun Arian: In line with your previous work, the central themes in ‘Demonst(e)rating the Untamable Monster’ deal with the question of Othering and the politics of representation. Could you elaborate on how you arrived at the archetype of the monster as a starting point for your narrative? What was the incentive to start employing actual monster characters that embody the subject matters you often engage with, in this work?
Cihad Caner: In my practice, I am trying to develop alternative forms of narrative and presentation, using historical and contemporary references and examples to confront issues related to representation, migration, civil resistance and alterity. I am interested in processes of image production, circulation and utilisation, particularly because of my previous practice as a photojournalist in a war context. With this work, I wanted to engage with images generated by the mainstream media industry, and the societal stereotypes they create, such as the ‘monstrous’ Other.
My protagonists in previous works such as ‘Abstract Violence’ from 2016 and ‘What Happens to the Geographical Borders When the Land Itself Moves’ from 2016-2017, were either silently floating or singing without any mouth or physical appearance. But with this work, my characters started to speak and show their subjectivity.
An important moment during the research phase was when I learned about the etymological origins of the words ‘monster’ and ‘stereotype’. Monster, in English and in Dutch, stems from the Latin word ‘monere’, which means ‘to warn’, but also from ‘monstrare’, which means ‘to show’ or ‘to expose’. So, in its etymological origins, the word ‘monster’ signals a warning, an action. It is a verb and not a noun. Stereotype, as we know, means oversimplification and generalisation, and processes of stereotyping end up in the formation of biases. But if we look at another meaning of the word stereotype, we find that it also refers to a metal printing plate used to create photographs. So, in a way both words monster and stereotype, are etymologically rooted in creating an image.
When I started this project, I knew that I wanted to work with speaking monster subjects. But I wanted them to talk in a way that is in fact quite the opposite of how monsters are usually portrayed. I wanted my monsters to show a particular subjectivity, reflecting and asking questions of access to representation. Are monsters capable of transforming the ways in which they are represented? Who remains silent and who will continue to speak? Who is authorised to speak on behalf of whom? They reflect, almost intellectually, on what produces and sustains certain monstrous images, and what could destroy them.
KA: It seems you have chosen to retain the visual archetypes of monsters used in, for example, popular culture. You work with idioms that we are familiar with, and yet you are creating something new. There is a particular self-reflexivity that your monster subjects perform, one that I find interesting. It’s as if the category of the monster is simultaneously subject to acknowledgment and scrutiny in your work.
CC: Accepting the visual tropes of the monster was the first step in making this work. The second step was to allow the image of the monstrous Other to speak up against its problems, by means of a non-linear narrative. I worked with three different subjects, including a queer person, a woman and a migrant. In the video installation, we see two monster bodies, but we hear three distinct voices, that shift between these two bodies.
In addition, I see the presence of the monster’s body in my work as a form of resistance. Its physical body cannot be controlled by the power structures that reduce it to its monstrosity. The monster is capable of challenging the dichotomy between what is real and what is representation through speech. Representation often hides and distorts ‘reality’ and is a process in the service of power. The three speaking subjects in my work question this relationship between representation and power. And while the image of the monster might stay the same, its voice and its story are subject to change. In this way, I aim to break the assumed identification of these subjects and their voices with the figure or the image of the monster. The monster may be what we see, but not what the speaking subject really is.
KA: I find this ambiguity and fragmentation significant as it also relates to the way the narrative seems to have been structured around the different notions that you have assigned to the category of the monster. The monsters’ speech also shifts between the poetic, the lyrical and didactic textual fragments, interwoven with musical intermezzos, which in turn enhances a sense of fragmentation without the narrative necessarily becoming disintegrated. Could you speak a bit on why you chose to employ a fragmented narrative structure?
CC: The different notions that you mention, could be fragmented further. The first part of the film, for example, is about embodying ‘monstrosity’. It was written and developed collaboratively with Anthony Hüseyin, a performer and musician I had worked with before, on the project ‘A Haunted Biscuit and the Specter of a Glorious Past’ from 2018. For his contribution to this work, I gave him a couple of keywords, such as ‘monster’, ‘witness’, ‘border’ and ‘representation’. He then started to write, basing his lyrics on his practice as a singer-songwriter, but also on his own personal experiences and his relation to these words. The text he wrote, is scattered over the different parts of the video, and so his addition to the narrative is indeed fragmented and non-linear.
I also used intertitles that contain questions directed at the viewer, to separate the different themes voiced by the three different subjects. I think if I had used a linear narrative structure with a beginning, a middle part and an end, it would be tiring for the viewer to grasp the content because of constant input with no time to digest or process it properly. Somehow, this non-linear narrative helped me to create space and pauses for the viewer to dive into the layers of the work. The use of in-between texts, or intertitles, long fade ins and outs, and the use of music in between, were a result of a lot of different try-outs with editing. I was aiming to create a balance in the narrative, inserting parts which might appear a bit more didactic or explicit, but at the same time avoiding literalness by including a combination of different textual styles. In a way, the music is non-linear as well, I guess we can call it freestyle. To additionally trouble assumptions about representation and reality, I created a theatrical atmosphere in the video through the use of dramatic lighting.
KA: In the end credits of the work, you reference the critical theory underpinning your work, including Donna Harraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, Richard Kearney’s ‘Strangers, Gods and Monsters’, all the way to Gayatri Spivak’s seminal essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ How does the personal and intuitive enter into the narrative? Or to put it differently, how do you position yourself within the work?
CC: The sources that have inspired the script have intentionally been included in the end credits, so that viewers can look them up if they want to know more. These sources were sort of candles on my way to produce the work; they illuminated my path throughout the research. I share them for those who would like to follow this path. About the personal, maybe you realise after hearing my voice that I also used myself to animate the monster. So, one of the monster figures in the project has my voice and facial gestures. Even though the theme of the monster may seem very broad, as it can be applied to different countries and regions across the world, it is also a very personal project for me and my collaborators, relating to our shared cultural background and the political context we come from. This is also one of the reasons that the non-linear narrative includes elements of social theory but also our own personal reflections.
Another connection with my personal background is my choice to have the monster speak in Turkish, along with the fact that Turkish is prioritised over English whenever text appears on the screen. Generally speaking, I am quite fascinated by different linguistic systems. For instance, my last project — ‘I, The Green Marble: The (Hi)story of My Witness and Memory’ (2020) — is a work in Italian but you can listen to a simultaneous English translation through headphones. My upcoming project will be both in Dutch and Arabic — more specifically in Fusha, which is modern standard Arabic, and Darija, which is a Moroccan Arabic dialect. For ‘Demonst(e)rating the Untamable Monster’ I first wrote the script in English, but then I felt that this project should be in a language that is not commonly spoken. I was even thinking of using Japanese for a while. But in the end, I decided to use Turkish. On the one hand, it is an attempt to block easy accessibility, and to create a sense of estrangement in the audience, many of whom don’t speak Turkish. In asking questions about the monstrous Other, it also seemed important to me to look at the relation between Otherness and language itself. Can a monster speak for him or herself? What relation is there between being seen as a monster and the language you speak? Can a monster represent him or herself in our society if they speak their native tongue?
KA: Your work seems to draw on several other cultural references. I read somewhere that you were initially inspired by Yokai, a class of monsters, spirits and supernatural, fantastical diabolic characters from Japanese folklore. How did Japanese folklore enter into your thinking about the figure of the monster?
CC: When I decided to work on this subject, I started to look into visual material from different cultures, but mostly from the Middle East because I initially wanted to create CGI characters that resemble monster figures from my own cultural background. My first discovery was a 13th century book called ‘The Wonders of Creation’ by the Persian astronomer, geographer and physician Zakarya Qazvini. The second important source was Mehmed Siyah Qalam’s illustrations from the late 14th and early 15th centuries, depicting dancing monsters. There were strong similarities between the two different sources from different times. Of course, you can say that they belong to the same culture in the region.
An object that caught my attention in these illustrations was the collar used on the monsters’ necks, wrists and ankles. I started to trace the use of collars in depictions of monsters in other cultures and traditions. The more I was looking into these illustrations, the more I found similar and other depictions of monsters from different regions across the Asian continent. This eventually led me to discover the Japanese Yokai. You could see striking similarities in the visuals. That’s when I decided to apply to the ARCUS project residency in Ibaraki, Japan. It was surprising and interesting to me that I started my research from manuscripts from what is now present-day Iran and ended up in Japan. Two different regions, 9000 km apart, but connected historically and culturally.
On the other hand, the belief system in Japan about the Yokai is very particular when it comes to how these spirits and monsters are seen and treated. To this day, many people in Japan believe that they live together with the Yokai and that these supernatural creatures have their own place and dimension within this world. Most of them are harmless to you. Sometimes they become visible but most of the time they are invisible. I thought this was a different interpretation of the notion of the monster, more as a supernatural being. During my residency, I conducted interviews, asking various questions about the Yokai, but always the same answer was given, related to a Yokai called Kappa who has the appearance of a turtle. It was commonly understood that these Kappa were originally foreigners, Chinese or Korean, who were expelled from their societies a long time ago. They started to live next to the rivers and swamps, and their bodies had transformed into these turtle-like creatures.
In Japan, I also had a chance to visit some shrines attributed to Yokai. I must admit that this belief in Yokai as entities who live amongst society not only made me think about the relationship between otherness and monsters, but also got me to think about how to become hospitable to the other — which is also a path that Derrida explored. According to Derrida, hospitality takes place among ‘good’ others and ‘bad’ others, which he bases on two words with the same etymological origin: ‘Hostility’ and ‘hospitality’. Both words have the same linguistic root in Latin, namely ‘hostis’, which can be translated as ‘stranger’ or ‘the enemy of the state’.
KA: How does the work that you eventually made, divert from the source material of Islamic manuscripts and Ukiyo-e prints of the Yokai that initially inspired you?
CC: The visual sources of the Islamic manuscripts and Toriyama’s Yokai were mostly inspirational. One of the illustrations from Siah Qalam’s book, however, became very important. It includes a monster playing the musical instrument Daf. I was immediately inspired and intrigued by the use of this frame drum and decided to use it in the soundtrack for the video. This image then also triggered my imagination that my monsters would not only speak, but they would also sing.
At the time, I was also testing new methods in my projects. A turning point was when I was introduced to motion-capture technology, which opened my eyes to new possibilities. I was already imagining and writing about this project, dreaming about what would happen if my monsters could talk. What would they say? With CGI technology, I was able to test these ideas. Taking Siah Qalem’s, Qawzini’s and Toriyama’s Yokai as an initial inspiration for the monster’s appearance, I wanted to create something hybrid, different and new. At the same time, I also wanted to have highly realistic looking characters that are somehow eerily human, like CGI characters integrated in contemporary science-fiction films. Working with motion-capture is almost like having on a virtual mask, so it’s very much an embodied, and performative way of working and making. The 3D model of the monster is a still image, until I record a motion of my collaborators or myself as data in order to animate it. So, in the end, it really becomes an embodied, living monster.
KA: As part of your presentation in the ARCUS residency programme and an exhibition in the Finnish Museum of Photography, you also showed drawings and small objects with an unknown symbology. How do these drawings and objects relate to the video work?
CC: This project had multiple outcomes: in addition to the CGI-motion capture video, I made sculptures, drawings, and a lecture-performance. In the performance, for example, I tell a story about my encounter with monsters as a result of strange dreams and strange weather. The glue between the different outcomes of the project is a fictional alphabet that can also be seen in the middle part of the film, where this alphabet depicts my name. The floating symbol looks like a face, with eyes, a mouth etc. This intervention was inspired by Hurufism, an ancient Islamic belief that uses Arabic calligraphy to draw a face of an individual with the name of the person to predict his or her fate. I wanted to engage with the relationship between language and Otherness and, by extension, with how language generates monster stereotypes. So, by using self-created symbols, involving a fictional language of signifiers without signified, I wanted to present an alternative semantic order to open up new prospects for meaning making, unburdened by the baggage of current conventions.
Cihad Caner (b. 1990) is an artist living and working in Rotterdam and Istanbul, who works primarily with photography, video, CGI and sculpture. Recent work focuses on the subject of image culture, on ways the ‘Other’ is portrayed, and on the utilisation of everyday objects in daily life and in different circumstances, such as war, resistance and immigration. He has exhibited at The Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki; Hong Kong Arts Center; AMNUA Museum, Nanjing; National Gallery of Iceland, Reykjavik; Bohai Galerie, Hannover; Kasseler Kunstverein; Corridor Project Space, Amsterdam; Blitz Malta; and EYE Film Museum, Amsterdam. In 2016, Caner graduated with a Masters in Media Design and Communication from the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam.
‘Demonst(e)rating the Untamable Monster’ (2019) was on view during the exhibition ‘Prospects and Concepts’ at Art Rotterdam in February 2020. A first version was shown in 2018 during the ARCUS project residency in Ibaraki, in Japan, where Caner was able to develop the video-installation alongside a lecture performance in two acts. The work has travelled to several exhibitions in 2019, including at the Kasseler Kunstverein, The Finnish Museum of Photography, Le château d’eau, and ISSP Gallery.
Director: Cihad Caner
Mocap Artists: Anthony Hüseyin, Ulufer Çelik, Cihad Caner
Sound: Yaşar Saka
Character Design: Ebuzer Caner
3D Model Artist: Kenn Edwards
Rig Artist: DeShawn Bellfield
Music and Lyrics: Anthony Hüseyin, Cihad Caner