Céline Gillain is a musician, video and performance artist living in Brussels. Her work is a hybrid of corrupted pop songs, feminist sci-fi, storytelling and dark humour.
Where are you and how are you doing these days?
I’m at home in Brussels, my apartment is small, but I live near a public park and have been feeling very lucky about that these days. I’ve found myself paying a lot of attention to the weather changes, to birds (are there more tits and robins than usual or am I just more aware of them?), I’ve been staring at trees, listening to the wind, smelling leaves, that sort of thing. Other than that, I exercise, watch cartoons, teach online, listen to music and podcasts, and I walk a lot. In a way, all the wandering around has helped me find my way back to my desire, a path I had lost these past few months. To be completely honest, this forced interruption is kind of a blessing to me. I’ve enjoyed not having deadlines, not having to make plans six months ahead. But then again, I’ve been counting my steps and obsessing over it like I’m some kind of robot, so I guess my mental health isn’t that great after all.
Are you affected by the current situation in terms of your work & art?
This crisis is reconfiguring many aspects of my life, the way I interact with people, of course, and how I feel responsible for them, how I organize, how I tend to put pressure on myself, and most importantly, it has given me space to think. This crisis has reminded me that I can’t be creative if I don’t have time to get lost a little, to kind of drift; imagination is linked to randomness, to something that is beyond my control. It’s like I’m reeducating myself how to think. And I know I’m not the only one experiencing this right now. Everyone I know is. Which is why I think we have to radically reject the idea of going back to normal.
There’s no way we can go back to business as usual. It’s not just a sanitary crisis, it’s an imagination crisis. Our sense of purpose is resetting. And, as a consequence, I sense that self-expression has become irrelevant. Don’t get me wrong: art, in its broadest form, is more relevant than ever but it has nothing to do with self-fulfillment. It has to be larger than that. The social value of music is huge, and that’s what I’m willing to explore even more from now on. But of course, I’ve only been able to question my existence because I haven’t got sick or haven’t lost any close ones. Every morning at around 7am I can hear my next-door neighbour leaving for work (she’s a social worker) and while I go back to sleep, I realize that my self-isolating, even if it’s complicated, is a luxury.
“It’s not easy to be free, but then it’s harder not to be” is a quote from your album “Bad Woman”, which is perhaps something we are thinking about a lot these days. What does freedom mean to you?
The concept of freedom is kind of elastic. My desire for emancipation is evolving, adapting. I have quite recently become acquainted with the music industry and its rules. Once you accept playing according to those rules you become an entertainer, which is weird when you think about it. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing either, but the risk is that you might experience a profound loss of meaning. In order to be profitable as an artist, the industry expects you to behave in certain ways, like, for example, you should be productive (it’s how you’ll grow), you should be grateful and should never complain (you’re actually paid to do what you love) and you should be fully committed (you don’t want to be seen as an amateur).
When you make electronic music, you’re called a producer. If you make experimental music, you’re called a composer. If your music makes people want to dance, then it’ll be considered a product more than a piece of art. Body vs mind, art vs industry: those dichotomies are very powerful in the electronic music field when they just don’t make sense at all anymore. A lot of people agree with that today, but the infrastructures are still very separated (if you play in a club or in an art centre, it will be a very different experience). I want to test the limits of those rules and explore their porosity. What this crisis reminds us is that being creative takes time, that there’s actually a difference between being productive and being creative. No one knows where this is heading but I think it’s simply a great opportunity to rethink the way we’ve been doing things.
Can you talk about the title of your album “Bad Woman” – is it the Shakespearean shrew, the mysterious Lilith, the societal depiction of a woman who defies its standards?
Yes. I want to invent my own way to be free and my own way of being a woman. For me, those two things are intertwined. One of the things that has kept me from feeling free is a sort of self-programming I’ve inherited from my mother (and her mother before her) that you should behave the way you’re expected to because if you don’t you’ll be marginalized and that’s the worst thing that could happen to you. Women are still mainly expected to be nurturing and sexy, and that’s limiting the way we see ourselves. I want to allow myself to be aggressive, ugly, seductive, crazy, hilarious, inconsistent, wrong, smart. Once you’ve managed to clear the way a little, at first you’re perplexed, confused. The situation’s changed drastically these past few years but growing up there were very few role models out there, and it felt like you could either conform or jump into the deep void. So, the Bad Woman is simply a person who doesn’t do what is expected of her. She’s never where you expect her to be. That’s the role model I’ve invented for myself.
In an interview with the Word Magazine, you mentioned that having full control of your image is important to you. How can we control our images once they are out in the public domain – either as public personas or private ones (via our social media bubbles)?
When someone takes a picture of you while you’re performing, that picture when shared carries a piece of you that you can no longer control. The tricky thing about that is that it becomes a self-sufficient thing, a thing people can own. But nowadays it’s the case for everybody. Everyone is exposed, everyone’s image is a commodity whether we like it or not. Our image, like any content we share online or generate, is data. In a sense, we all became performers when we became producers of data. So, the moment we become active on the internet or own a smart phone is the moment we accept being used and exploited, the moment we lose control.
But in the meantime, it also makes every single one of us a potential pirate. We can choose what ideas we are planting, how to articulate them, how we infiltrate the system and contaminate it. When you publish this interview tomorrow, these words I’m writing now will no longer be under my supervision, hopefully they will start a new life and go their own way. Ideas are very contagious; you can’t stop them from spreading. But I’m also puzzled by the fact that as a performing artist your face becomes a brand and even more so if you’re a woman, your body will be scrutinized, objectified like you’re some kind of mascot or fetish, like your body doesn’t belong to you once you take it outside the private sphere.
In the same interview you also said: “I consume pop culture in a wide and bulimic way. I’m fascinated by advertisements and capitalist propaganda, and obsessed with the American entertainment industry, in particular with the way it creates heroes and success stories.” To what extent are you influenced by pop in your creative work?
Growing up in the 80’s in a small village in Belgium, I discovered pop music through TV, radio, and local fairs. It was mainly chanson française and New Wave but also New Beat, which of course was my favourite (my dad said it was trash). I think I was around 16 when a friend in high school lent me an ambient cassette and I realized it was something that required a different kind of attention. Also, I played the recorder from a very early age and was familiar with baroque music. But I never considered these types of music to be unequal, or in fact considered categories to be relevant.
During my teenage years in the 90’s, pop was adventurous and hybrid. Bjork’s Venus as a Boy, Massive Attack’s Karmacoma, and Tricky’s Overcome will forever be models and represent a certain idea of perfection to me.
I think I’ll never get over those three particular songs because they are so very experimental and yet so very pop. Florian Schneider from Kraftwerk died today – I think Kraftwerk is one perfect example of experimental going pop without losing its intelligence, or pop going experimental without losing its directness, its efficiency. I love pop when it’s testy, edgy, precarious, when it uses the contradictions of the system to its advantage and exploits its flaws. I can’t really explain my fascination with pop and sometimes I hate it too, when it’s simplistic and treats people like imbeciles.
Do you think art has the potential to change society these days? (are art and especially art scene/s transgressive in 2020?)
I agree with Gilles Deleuze when he says the creative act is an act of resistance within societies of control. We need decompression zones where we can explore and play with our own defectiveness and we need to nurture those in a permaculture kind of way. Fascism and aggressive conservatism are creeping all over the planet and as artists we have a responsibility to resist those forces in any way that we can. Fun culture has ripped electronic music away from its political charge and it is maintaining us in a state of relative passivity (and self-destruction).
Today art fairs, art institutions and music festivals are often sponsored by big brands, banks, alcohol, multinationals, tech companies (they use the word partner instead of sponsor) and what we should ask ourselves is: can art be transgressive inside the logic of profit? And can we still infiltrate it? Can we stab crushing monsters with our little art blade? Are we completely powerless? When you’re on a stage in front of an audience, you can feel the power of the people, the electricity of their bodies, it’s so powerful it’s scary sometimes. Being together, listening to music, dancing, thinking with our body, is in itself a form of political resistance because it creates a common language that is beyond anyone or anything’s control. At least that’s what I believe in.
What are you looking forward to most after the end of the quarantine?
Interview: Lucia Udvardyova
Photo: Claudia Höhne