Brenda Lien – Cinematic Narratives

Portrait

CALL OF BEAUTY © Brenda Lien

“I’m a fan of fast movies,” says Brenda Lien. She values aesthetic compositions that get to the point. Beauty videos and make-up tutorials, cat films and digital meditation sessions: Over the last three years, this filmmaker, animation artist and film-score composer has asked herself what makes these formats popular, as well as to what extent they are legible as commentaries on society. In her film trilogy that she concluded recently, she deliberately went for YouTube formats and thus pursued and applied herself to mass-market narrative concepts that are striking above all for their superficiality, interchangeability and short lifespan, as well as for their simplicity and the rapidity of their distribution. And these videos are fast, no doubt about it.

 

With their conciseness, Lien’s films CALL OF BEAUTY (2016) and CALL OF COMFORT (2018) imitate the product-like nature of this and similar formats through their appeal, simple-mindedness and catchiness. But her aim is to offer more than just fun; through her exaggerations and excesses she poses feminist questions, as well as those about body politics and spirituality. And then, right in the middle of her trilogy, comes a brutal rupture: The animated film CALL OF CUTENESS (2017) works as an affront to cuteness, as an antithesis of imitation and citation. The film uses counter-images to those in the usual cat videos that could hardly be more drastic or severe: With animal bodies being dissected and spayed, drowned, kept captive and eviscerated.

CALL OF CUTENESS © Brenda Lien

In these three films, the aesthetic range of an exceptionally versatile and form-conscious filmmaker unfolds, of an artist who is only at the start of her career yet has already generated one of the greatest German short film successes over the last few years: Following its premiere at the Berlinale, CALL OF CUTENESS has been screened at more than 100 international film festivals and made Brenda Lien one of the most visible young talents on the local scene. Yet for that, it becomes clear in conversation with her that no automatizing should be expected from her. Quite the opposite: Her films emerge independently and step by step from critical self-questioning, in addition to her developing them, recording the soundtracks and animating them herself to a large extent. And in terms of their methodical diverseness, in fact her works pose fundamental questions that address cinema.

 

Above and beyond her aesthetic methods, Lien also reflects on which modes of perception she is confronted with as a film artist in the festival and art world. At screenings of CALL OF CUTENESS, for instance, she has found herself facing outright exasperation: After the great enthusiasm generated by her critical exploration of “women’s issues” in CALL OF BEAUTY, her second work CALL OF CUTENESS has triggered off irritation again and again. With it seeming that the festival audiences expect appropriate subjects from a young artist, rather than a shock film.

CALL OF BEAUTY © Brenda Lien

However, CALL OF BEAUTY was actually intended to be a “call of duty”, a consistent adherence to a feminist cinematographic practice that she had already applied previously in her animated film DER GEKERBTE RAUM AUS STEIN GEGEN EIN IDEAL AUS GLAS/STRIATED STONE MEETS FRAGILE IDEALS from 2015 – a furious reckoning with patriarchal violence that manifests itself equally in both public and private spaces. At that time, Lien worked together with the poetry slammer Josefine Berkholz, who gave her complete creative and compositional freedom in the adaptation of her text. She used the power of Berkholz’s lyrics as a basis for her film and compiled expressive, moody images about the isolation and claustrophobia of a woman who has given way to despair and yet still wants to strike back combatively against oppressing circumstances. With a compelling soundscape as an aural backdrop, the language, drawings and camera shots combine to become nightmarish scenarios that, in terms of their severity and agitation, have persisted through to her newer works. On a working level too, Lien will not forget the effort involved, as the film proved to be a mammoth project for the artist. She drew 9,000 images by hand for the work. And today, roughly three years and three films later, she finally mentions and underscores her desire to move away from purely animated film. The method is too sluggish for her and her voyage is now taking her to hybrid forms.

 

After DER GEKERBTE RAUM AUS STEIN GEGEN EIN IDEAL AUS GLAS, it seemed that CALL OF BEAUTY really was like an aesthetic rupture. And yet it was also a return to earlier attempts at a thespian scenic adaptation. Lien has said that the film initially arose from an intensive exploration of feminist theory, without the idea of making a trilogy. In the short piece, she portrays two women who produce make-up videos for their YouTube channel. In their chats and discussions, the opinion-makers come across as insecure egomaniacs, cynics and victims, and yet also as co-creators of an attention economy that is devouring humans. At the point in time when she made the film, Lien was also involved in student politics in the General Student Committee (AStA) at the University of Art and Design (HfG) in Offenbach. However, she quickly realised that the shelving of her filmmaking for this could ultimately prove to be a strategic mistake: While she mobilised against structural problems, her fellow male students continued to resolutely shoot further films.

 

Fundamental questions about the educational and training route taken by her seem to be especially relevant, as Brenda Lien dropped out of school and quit training to become a pianist for the sake of her filmmaking. With the result that the 23-year-old woman has already been studying at the HfG since 2012: She initially took animation under Mariola Brillowska, who positions herself in the conflicting field of heterogeneous artistic practice and has worked with comics, prose, performance and theatre in addition to film. In her mostly animated films, Brillowska utilises drastic images and confrontational body politics, revealing explicit sex and bodily dissolutions, new creations and deformations of the natural. Such as in PORNO KARAOKE (2005), for instance, when the pope presents his tripartite penis in the shape of a cross and gladly engages in orgies with boy-like angels.

 

Lien has studied mainly under Rotraut Pape. As an artist and filmmaker, Pape stands for a practice of reflection on the image above and beyond its conditions of presentation. In addition to experimental documentary formats for television, she has repeated scrutinised the visual by means of installation and performative framings and settings. Moreover, Pape has explored image-production processes beyond the classic camera techniques and even included computer and X-ray images in her artistic practice, such as for DER GARTEN/THE GARDEN (1998) or in SPLIT BRAIN 1.0 (2000). Gazing into the human body permits her to mine deeply for ethical and socio-political issues and radically question dominant interpretations, such as those about the body, for instance.

 

Both Pape’s affinity for technology as well as Brillowska’s pleasure in iconoclastic-anarchistic animation circulate as influences visible in Lien’s works that, however, create new codes so as to fathom other questions and intensities. With their unique collisions of graphic and photographic techniques, as well as the search for their points of contact and interconnections impressing and inspiring. Thus it seems that for Brenda Lien, too, it is not evident at all that the camera suffices as an appropriate and adequate means for her artistic compositions.

CALL OF COMFORT © Brenda Lien

In CALL OF COMFORT, her most recent film, computer-generated images seem to connect effortlessly with sterile shots of examination rooms and sketch out a functioning sci-fi scenario using simple means. In a cinematic culture that is marked by a great fear of contact with the generic and the fantastic, this may indeed be worth mentioning – even if Lien herself describes the film as being less science-fiction than it is an experimental work. An assertion that is doubly surprising because she decided to distance herself from experimental film after gaining experience with it earlier on, and has instead advocated clear premises for the narration, editing and composition. And she knows what she is talking about here: In practical exercises accompanying her studies, she tried out and tested editing methods and animation processes in image and sound collages (SELBSTDARSTELLUNG/SELF-PORTRAYAL), in music videos (ZYKLUS I/CYCLUS I) and in an associative poetry film together with Berkholz (KONTUREN/CONTOURS). The results of her earlier creative output are to some extent reminiscent of abstract film and can be viewed on the artist’s website.

 

In fact, CALL OF COMFORT appears perhaps to be the freest film in her trilogy, as an exploration of a mode of perception, as a play with coordinates that seems more self-referential than in all of Lien’s other works, and indeed almost hermetic. Utilising a rigidly subjective perspective, the field of vision – the gaze – of an apparently genderless creature, which could be either human or machine, is cleaned and embalmed with a paste – accompanied by the lulling words of women who might be doctors, engineers or businesswomen. The aim of the process is the total monitoring and control of the facial musculature, which, after various control implants, represents the next stage in the economisation of the human body. The procedure is followed by several self-contained images: Male private parts being powdered and dewaxed, followed by a golden body in the style of Kubrick’s 2001 floating through outer space. At the end, the film imitates a browser window and presents alternative video suggestions in a YouTube style. With “10 Hours of White Noise” part of it all.

CAL OF COMFORT © Brenda Lien

The film has worked to date in an art context especially, says Lien. It was recently presented in the body / tech exhibition at the Museum Angewandte Kunst (MAK), for instance. And by now the artist herself has also had her first solo exhibition “Positive Affirmations” in the 1822-Forum Frankfurt, where she showed her three films not as projections but rather via typical YouTube displays for individual viewers, who became part of an installation at the same time when viewing them. In three spaces, the exhibition assumed aesthetic codes of YouTube templates, as the artist herself said. And understandably, the exact framing or setting of her own works – both inside and beyond the cinema – is a major topic for an artist at the start of her career, for whom it is also important how her films are talked about and considered. Doing so, she accepts the purely thematic discussions that arise repeatedly during the presentation of her films, but fundamentally she wants to defend and advocate a film discourse in which the form also plays a central role.

 

Following the completion of her trilogy, she sees further points of reference in her future works. Her graduation film is intended to be a calling card for a planned and already funded feature-length film with a storyline about burnout and workaholism in a dystopian society. Already now during the writing phase, she is turning her thoughts to the concrete work in the larger project. She has spoken, for instance, in connection with the film about the principle of neutral roles parity [please link: http://neropa.stieve.com/] in which figures undefined by gender or sex are considered to an equal extent during the writing and in the casting for both the actresses and actors. If a character could have both genders, why would it then need to be defined or specified in advance?

 

The role that gender issues will play on a concrete level in the future world of her upcoming film is something she is not yet willing to reveal. Beyond doubt, however, her descriptions of the project affirm a clear formal development on her part: Following the feminist topics of her earlier works, Brenda Lien is now pursuing a feminist/intersectional practice of filmmaking even more distinctly, matched by her handling of late capitalist issues. Commencing with her experimental roots, she is looking for a clear narrative style with an awareness of form doing so. And it seems that her route there is well paved, because her latest filmic works already speak a distinct language.

 

The question arises from which point does a narrative becomes self-supporting. Currently, her films clearly and repeatedly display their own constructedness and philosophical ambitions, while breaking the narrative flow at times and seeming to be especially artistic through this – just like the ever-recurring bodies that assembled themselves from set pieces or dissolve into their components. As the animated subject in the face of violence. As the animal that is turned by the system into the material of sensation. And finally, as the humanoid artistic body that is floating away in all directions.

 

Filmography

 

2015      DER GEKERBTE RAUM AUS STEIN GEGEN EIN IDEAL AUS GLAS/STRIATED STONE MEETS FRAGILE IDEALS

2016      CALL OF BEAUTY

2017      CALL OF CUTENESS

2018      CALL OF COMFORT

 

Films in Exhibitions

 

2015      Poolhaus Galerie, Hamburg Blankenese: Exhibition and gallery premiere of DER             GEKERBTE RAUM AUS STEIN GEGEN EIN IDEAL AUS GLAS/STRIATED STONE MEETS FRAGILE IDEALS

 

2016      Frappant-Galerie, Hamburg: BIG GIRLS, group exhibition

 

2017      Westwerk, Hamburg: VIDEO Club 17, group exhibition

 

2018      CBL, Berlin: Nomads in Transition, group exhibition

 

2018      1822-Forum, Frankfurt am Main: Positive Affirmations, first solo exhibition

 

2018      Kunstverein Familie Montez, Frankfurt am Main: VKunst, group exhibition

 

2018      Museum Angewandte Kunst (MAK), Frankfurt am Main: body / tech, group exhibition