Magic, matter, resistance: An interview with Heta Bilaletdin
Heta Bilaletdin is a multidisciplinary artist from Finland working mostly with sound and moving image. Samples, field recordings, singing, synthesizers, computer, found objects and tapes are her main tools for creating collage-like compositions, experimental pop songs, beats and music concrete, sometimes in a collaboration with wind, birds or water. Her visual work consist of experimental films, animations and installations often using spells and rituals as methods, exploring subtle connections, myths, power structures and hidden choreographies in our coexistence.
You have been active since the 2010s in the experimental scene in Helsinki, playing in bands like Olimpia Splendid, Myttys, you’ve organised events, VJed and DJed. Can you talk about this creative journey?
I started to play in experimental bands when I was 16. With the first groups, we mostly made improvised music. My instrument was a weirdly tuned electric guitar that I played with objects like files, knitting needles, mallets, combs, and rubber gloves, along with mumbly singing and screaming. A sort of non-music aesthetic was essential. Technical virtuosity never interested me. Music and films by the early 80s No Wave -movement and the same era West-Berlin super8-scene, Rrriot girls, and the so-called Finnish forest folk of the Y2K era fascinated me.
I soon- this was around 2005-2006- found a home in the experimental scene intertwined between Helsinki, Tampere, and Turku: labels like Fonal and Lallallal, concerts organized by Mental Alaska, and festivals like Avanto and Potlatch. Music varied from free improv to avant-punk, noise, unconventional bedroom pop, neo-folk, eccentric hip hop, drone and energetic free-form jazz. The approach to music was anarchistic, sparkly and playful, sounds were more or less lo-fi, and making and releasing stuff felt approachable.
One cool thing in the scene was so many of the central characters & biggest names in those days were women, like Launau, Kuupuu and Islaja. I was still a shy teen and perhaps for me it was important & influential to have such great artists around as role models.
At some point, I started making solo home recordings too, with a very random, minimal and cheap set of hardware, domestic objects, toyish synths, and a 4-track cassette recorder. Slowly I learned more about gear & sound tech, recording and mixing.
Olimpia Splendid is a trio of Jonna Karanka, Katri Sipiläinen and me, founded around 2010. We play guitars and bass on top of eerie hypnotic drum machine loops, sing and occasionally shriek. My guitar is still weirdly tuned. Some people call it stoner rock ´because it’`s slow and repetitive.
Myttys is a duo of Samuli Tanner and myself. We use a pile of old and new samplers and make beats, cheesy organ jams, sci-fi instrumentals and deconstructed lo-fi pop.
With Samuli we also used to organize Musa Ullakolla – concerts and parties in an old medicine factory where we have our studio. During the lockdowns of the covid pandemic, we continued online & had festivals in a hacked virtual world called SWGBBO. Our virtual pool parties became surprisingly popular, even internationally. Actually fellow SHAPE+ artists Roxane Metayer and Vica Pacheco played there too.
Has the scene in Helsinki changed, and are you still involved in it?
Many people of the Y2K-2010s scene are having families and day jobs these days and less time dedicated to late night events. Many of them are still actively making excellent music/ art/ radio shows though. The younger generation is closer to the rave scene, drawing inspiration from online culture and deconstructed club stuff, trance and such. The contemporary aesthetic is more dystopian. I guess I’m somewhere in between, part of both worlds.
What I see as a positive shift: the scene now is more diverse in many ways. More queer, different backgrounds, different ages, and angles on music. DIY organizers are more aware of feminist discourses and try to keep venues safe. It’s cool.
Besides music, visual work is an important part of your creation. You’ve done experimental films, animations, installations. What is your approach to visuality?
Aural and visual are equally important to me.
I grew up surrounded by classical music, but I never wanted to study music myself. I considered the strict rules and music theory alienating. Instead, I studied visual arts. BA at Turku Arts Academy, in the department of animation, and lately MA at the Academy of Fine Arts Helsinki in the department of Time & Space, where besides sound I concentrated on moving image & installation.
Yes I work a lot with video and animation, using digital techniques, and old-school methods like stop motion. I often animate found objects: marbles, plastic waste, super balls, pieces of mirror, stones, plant parts. One can learn something about objects by sitting among them, working with them, and being exposed to their materiality. Making animation also has a ritual nature, it’s about repetition, focusing on the smallest possible movement and touch. Sometimes just exhaling at the wrong moment causes an uncontrollable avalanche of elements in the image, the particles settle into chaos, you have to maintain patience, sift the crumbs back to their right positions, and wear black so that your reflection is not seen on the surface of the shiny object, calm life down so there are enough nerves and capacity for a work of this miniature scale. Animation is radical slowness in a time aiming for efficiency and productivity, it is silent rebellion, a refusal of the demands of capitalism.
Often immersive sound plays a big role in my films as well and I tend to finish the sound first – then edit the video material to its rhythm.
Lately, I’ve started to work with sculptural forms and electronics too. At the moment I’m obsessed with the bubble shibori technique and making 3d fabric sculptures of old silk garments. I also like to draw.
Ritual, magic, spells, myths are interwoven in your work. How do you incorporate them and what is their role?
I’ve made two video pieces around the theme of magic.
The first one called SYNX is an interactive installation consisting of experimental documentary film and sound sculptures with light sensors. Through an interview with a neuroscientist and a dancer, a collage of animation, mirrors, underwater shots and a spell it explores synchronization between bodies during interaction, questioning the conception of individuals or other beings as definite and unattached.
Another one: Objects believed to protect from evil was an attempt to make an essay film around the topics of magic, matter and resistance, monuments and iconoclasm. An object can represent power, be a spiritual tool or a cursed item.
The idea of a magical object juxtaposes interestingly with the desire for objects in the capitalistic setting. Can owning an object change who you are? Or, if we think about the iconoclast urge to crush monuments – Can destroying an object hurt the concept behind it? Symbolic thinking comes close to magical thinking.
Old Finnish folklore and pagan beliefs are inspiring. Things like: hiding a sharp object under the threshold of a building absorbs the magic power of the witch stepping over it, leaving the person powerless.
I use spell-like repetition, reverse speaking, and like to play with miraculous ideas like “melody as a weapon”, “sound as an emergency exit” or “flower as a teacher” in my films.
The core of my work is usually the idea of a shared reality – where ritual in one form or another is essential. I’m interested in the interrelationships between things: social level, planetary level, the multi-species network of relationships, dependencies, intersections, power structures, communication or dialogue, or fusion.
Perhaps I’m trying to reach towards that diminishing zone, which is impossible to exploit commercially: connections that are immaterial, subtle, swaying, dusty, trembling, slow, holy, childlike, fading, flickering, ghost-like.
Making art is also making something to gather around. Through art, I can reach out to others. Friendships, communities, and spaces where it is meaningful to spend time are formed.
Can you describe your creative process? You collect objects, trash, field recordings. What importance does assemblage and recontextualisation play in your work?
Collecting is an important ever-ongoing part of my practice. I’m inspired by the tradition of musique concrète. Any sound source can be interesting.
With my video pieces I start with fragments of information, audio, and images: read and write, make home- and field recordings, pick up abandoned objects, shoot video, and animate. Slowly some kind of connections start to emerge between the fragments, and I organize the pieces together.
Collecting found stuff and re-using material has a lot to do with not wanting to buy a lot of things but also being open to contingency and letting something I happen to find on the street influence my work.
I’m interested in the idea of a hybrid of film and sculpture. Making spatial experiments with objects that continue the film outside the film, in the exhibition space is something I`’ve been doing in recent years.
You’ve done a couple of residencies and projects recently. Can you talk about them?
This year after the pandemic has been crazy with so many projects, shows, and a lot of travelling.
We curated audio content for the interlocal Lumbung Radio of Documenta Fifteen with Samuli Tanner.
In June we stayed 4 weeks in the village of Järna in Sweden and recorded old synthesizers, drum machines, percussion instruments, flugel, reverbs, and other material to use as samples for our Myttys-project.
I was happy to be in FIKAS Residency in Montreal, Canada in October. There I worked together with local artist and herbalist Emilie Payeur and we played a concert together.
I also made a track for the Water Levels compilation that just came out from the US label Cudighi. The whole tape is music for aquatic worlds of imaginary video games. Altogether I played 16 shows this year in Finland and around Europe. In between, I spent a lot of time living like a hermit deep in the forest of Hattula – my second home besides Helsinki.
Interview: Lucia Udvardyova