Sitdown is an Alchemy Film & Arts series of artist interviews, published to complement its exhibitions, residencies and other events.

Demelza Kooij‘s award-winning Wolves from Above is showing in a new installation context in Hawick, 16 – 29 November 2019, as part of Forage/Image, Alchemy’s project exploring the relationship between artists, landscapes and environment. The film, which won a Jury Prize at the 2019 Ann Arbor Film Festival, captures the interactions and behaviours of a pack of wolves through a single drone shot, exploring spectatorship and the role of technology in defining human-animal relationships.

Demelza’s contribution to Read More, Alchemy’s ongoing project encouraging additional engagement with its exhibitions and other events, can be found here. The artist spoke with Michael Pattison, Alchemy Film & Arts Creative Director, about empathy, alien perspectives and how to get an audience to ask what’s going on.

Alchemy: Tell me about the location. How did you find it?

Demelza Kooij: Initially I was going to make a feature-length documentary, a tableau on how people interact worldwide with dogs. I thought, ‘Let’s start with where dogs come from.’ They all descend from the wolf. I got a bit of money to travel to Montreal after making Graminoids [2014]. The producer said, ‘Why don’t you go up north to this wolf park and check out some wolves?’ I fell in love with the place. It’s a very strange, eerie place, mainly because of the soundscape. There are lots of different birds flying there.

And you stuck with wolves. You didn’t make a film about dogs.

People have preconceived ideas about what a wolf is supposed to be. They come up with excuses to justify their initial preconceptions. Rather than changing their preconception, they say these are not real wolves, because they live in an enclosure – and indeed some of them are bred in captivity, so it might be questionable. But what I find really fascinating is how humans need concepts and bordered, clear knowledge. They go to a place and they can tell you: ‘That is a tree, this is a house, this is a wolf.’ We box everything in. I understand why we do that, but I make films to work against this, so that we do not just identify – because everything stops at identification – but hopefully so we can see beyond rigid borders and relive the mystery.

And the desired effect of this is what?

To unknow, basically. Initially, I wanted to call my [PhD] thesis A Cinema of Unknowing, to deconstruct thinking and reified concepts and terms and knowledge. To let things breathe again and speak to you in a way that you might not understand at first. So we do not get stuck in our preconceived ways of thinking. I believe in change, that things are always becoming. To say that one thing is one thing disrupts all possibility for change. And I think this is also dangerous, in broader terms. I was fascinated by the ways in which people tried to classify the wolves that they saw to match their preconception.

Did you form a connection to the wolves in the film? How did you build a relationship?

I’d been there five times already. The first time I spent one night. The second time, eleven nights. The third time was for five nights, and then for three nights… I do believe spending time somewhere benefits any project, and in art and writing that is rooted in a space.

A drone is very noisy. This is initially the reason why the wolves are looking up. It’s so noisy you can’t do any sync sound recording. All of the sounds you hear are reconstructions. They are recorded in that location, but they are not synced; it is all fabricated. Some sounds are actually Foley recordings made by Lars [Koens] in the studio, re-enacting wolf footsteps with grass and mud and brick.

The sound design highlights the interplay between what is mechanical and what is bodily, the human and the non-human. I was going to ask about the weird, machine-like hum.

There are two types of hum in the film. One is the hum of cars driving in the background. This is a very flat part of Canada, so sound travels very far. I’m not a sound recorder, so I make strange decisions: I press record as soon as the sound [of cars appear]. Lars also really likes that kind of sound, and stitched them all together. The reason why I like it is because it started with this dogs project, and it’s about the man-madeness of things, the constructedness of technology, which connects with dogs as a technology and how that filters into the relationship between the human and the non-human.

The other hum is the sound that accompanies the camera movement. I felt in that space as if I were an alien, as if I was dropped down onto a planet that I did not know. I wondered how an alien would see anything here without knowing how to interpret things. If you’re free of all preconceptions, how would that affect vision and perception? We spoke at length about science fiction, as if the spaceship descends quite literally, as if we are an alien on the spaceship descending down into space trying to figure out things as we go along.

There’s also the relationship between what we might deem to be the wolves’ natural behaviour and what we might see as your intervention upon their behaviour.

I was waiting for interactions and movements that seemed unnatural, or more choreographed, or unnatural because it looked too good to be real – as if I staged them, or as if they are somehow digitally manipulated, because wolves move in concordance with each other and almost exactly at the same time. I was waiting for such moments, for geometric lines to align with trapezoid shapes. What you see is all patience. Filming for hours and hours, and waiting for things to happen. The reason why I was waiting for those kinds of things is because I wanted people to have an incentive to see the wolves as something other than what they thought they would be. I don’t think people would expect wolves to move in a choreography, or that they would move in exact trapezoid shapes. It hopefully gives the viewer an incentive to ask what’s going on.

The film breaks the fourth wall as a result of this tension, between the wolves’ natural behaviour and their behaviour in response to your technological intervention.

We should talk about a previous project of mine, The View from Here [2012], about a man’s relationship with a horse. I knew that at some point the horse in the film was going to be killed. I was alone with the horse in the field and was trying to capture it in an enigmatic way. The sun was setting with lots of little flies and the light was golden. I was looking through the LCD screen of my camera at the horse and the horse was looking at me. Our eyes did not meet because I was looking at the horse through this digital screen, but yet it felt to me as if the horse was looking directly at me. I understood that that is how the viewer in the cinema would also experience it.

I find this endlessly fascinating and also very funny. We can safely assume that a non-human animal does not have a concept of cinema. I am dead certain that when you point the camera at them they will not think of it as resulting in a broadcast. But the [human] viewer forgets about this. This is Coleridge’s suspension of disbelief. We agree to believe in the illusion that the animal is looking at us, so in a way there is a direct address: when the animal is looking into the camera, the viewer gets the sense that they are directly addressed. I’ve been using this time and time again.

Does it provoke certain emotions for you? Does it change from animal to animal, or project to project?

It has to do with embodiment. When a human looks into the camera it prompts the viewer to consider who that person is and what might be going on in their head. It’s the same with animals. When there’s eye contact between the wolf and the viewer you are more inclined to wonder what is going on inside the head of the wolf. I want to increase empathy between wolf and human. It’s about an empathic connection between the two.

I’m also interested in how spectatorship is two-way here. There’s a space co-inhabited between viewer and subject.

Initially, I had thought of this film only being shown in a cinema. In Poland, at the Wrocław Biennale, it was projected as a large projection on the floor, at the feet of visitors. Because the wolves are almost life-size, they feel much closer, and there’s a more direct relation between the body of the viewer and the body of the wolf. This embodiment also helps to strengthen the relationship between spectator and wolf.

For the Alchemy exhibition you are lying on your back. I hope that the danger of the wolves walking above you, and you having such a direct connection to something onscreen, will increase this connection and this embodiment of the screen – a sense of shock that something can be so close. Shock doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you’re afraid; it can be something so immediate and profound about the image that you are in shock. I gasped at the Viktor Kossakovsky’s ¡Vivan las antípodas! [2011]. There’s one beautiful moment where he shot a beached whale in New Zealand and a rock in Spain, and the rock in Spain has the shape of the whale. He does a split screen where the rock becomes the shadow of the beached whale. That shocked me.

I hope the way Wolves from Above is exhibited by Alchemy in Hawick will enhance the relationship between what’s happening in your body and what’s happening onscreen, and to help us to consider the wolf as a mythological being, but also about animals more broadly.

‘Wolves from Above’ is held at 53 High Street, Hawick, TD9 9BP, 16 – 29 November 2019, 11am – 4pm Wednesday – Saturday 2019. Free admission. More information on ‘Wolves from Above’ can be found here.

Image: Tom Swift