A conversation between Helen Broms Sandberg and Carmelo Marabello

Unlocking Passages recounts on two screens the obsessive life of a man who has succumbed to an obsession: to narrate and relive the life of a dead queen, Christina of Sweden. The Queen relives through the bodies of two actors, a child and in the voice over. These different bodies recount and show the life of four personalities that are in reality the incredible projection of the ghost of a woman from the seventeenth century.

While the world of the parallel screens produces history and stories, possible and different truths through the actors’ bodies that create the pathway through embodying and orienting it…. In an anachronic process, where the post-production suggests contact and overlaying, where the Italian gardens become royal historical relicsSomething that goes beyond and transcends the symbols or dreamy images, to produce non-sites where to re-mediate and re-locate the very story through the images….

Carmelo Marabello: Private memories, traces of stories, collective memory, places, public buildings, private houses, spaces for invention: Unlocking Passages in some way recapitulates your previous works…

Helen Broms Sandberg: Yes, for the first time I’ve used text, photography, moving image, sound and dialog in the same project and I’ve worked for the first time with professional actors, two great actors, which makes a big difference. However the video is based on a story as in all my previous projects. I write stories using elements from everyday events, retold stories, texts, dreams and legends. Stories that have to do with loss and disappearance, the passages from one state to another between dream and reality, that recall visual memories and are connected to a specific space. The use of multiple screens makes it possible to simultaneously show the parallel worlds of different times and spaces within the same story. I realized working with Unlocking Passages that video is a great way to work with stories and memory. Film and memory allow us to travel in time.

C.M: Returning to the tension between photography and video in your work: The necessity of a story, evident and visible in a work such as Folds, in which writing and photography interweave in the form of an artist’s book in some way…..

H.B.S: Folds was my first text-based project where I started examining how images and text interact and interfere. The starting point was the coincidences between a text by Joseph Brodsky and a newspaper photograph of him in a café (where I’ve been as a child), a painting by J.M.W. Turner and the view from a hotel room, like a puzzle where the pieces formed the memory of the same city, Venice. I lived with the project for quite a long time before publishing a small scrapbook and I realized that the research inspired me in doing other projects.

C.M: It is almost as if the private and collective memory of the places and the stories can present themselves in a new form, like affection-images as Deleuze writes, of icons that like anchors make pathways and routes, intertwining, a fabric of photographic traces as indexes and as memories of faces and places, in a way similar to in the portraits series Still Leben or in Dust is the Flesh of Blood of Time, of environments that the imagery reconstructs as installations or special situations…..

H.B.S: Dust is the Flesh and Blood of Time has very much to do with loss but also with time and space. I came by chance to the abandoned house of a woman that had disappeared. This happened during the period that I met Brodsky a few times when working on Folds. The situation represented perfectly what Folds was about, how to work with visual memory. I used video and photography for representing different times; the camera for investigation, documentation to make it possible to, in a different time “reconstruct space,” and using the video camera for recording time to, in a different space, “reconstruct the present” through a floor of monitors showing my first walk through the rooms in real time. By the way the work was installed I wanted the visitors to experience the house of the missing woman; the space like a portrait imagined through traces and objects.

C.M: Something similar happens in the photo portraits of the 1990’s where the analogue image returns traces of reflections followed and then photographed on old handheld mirrors, creating doubles that the imperfections of the surface make into the photographic memory of a process, in the truth of a face at the end interpreted and photographed through its reflection…

H.B.S: Yes, I started to experiment with pictures I’ve taken of people I knew. The faces, when projected on those surfaces, were fragmented, reduced, deformed some of them aged. But the features were still there, they were still kinds of portraits but like shadow images. I also worked with double projections, with twins or with two images of the same person where the expressions were slightly different, where one of the images had gone through a “process of time”.

C.M: It is as if the history and nature of these works run alongside the truth of an interpretation that analogical optics or digital video try to imagine and invent, to give a shape to history and stories.  It is like saying: try to realize the truth of a photographic set or a video set capable to give back the possibility of itself the action, to foresee in some way, in the analogical work, to reinvent it eventually in the digital work of the last of the photo portraits of the Still Leben-series from 2006, and finally, in Unlocking Passages, where the style and post production deeply mark the project…

H.B.S: Usually the digital manipulation interests me to a certain point. It’s a tool. It’s about scenography. But in Unlocking Passages it was important to distinguish the worlds of the four characters, representing the Queen’s different personalities: the virtual universe of the dead queen and her alter-ego, from the writers reality and the dream-memory- landscape of the queen as a child. In post-production we changed the colours of the 16th century palace and gardens to make it more surreal and “painted” a universe for the queen, an infinite universe without time and space, while the present time prison/asylum was built like an installation.

C.M: Running through the memory of cinema and theatre in this way through the actors’ bodies in a mise en espace…

H.B.S: Yes, like the two screens as stages, as in a theatre play and with the two actors using different languages: Udo Kier that of cinema and Agneta Ekmanner of theatre. I choose not to direct, nor to give the actors too many instructions or time to prepare, at a certain point conceding control over the underlying meaning of the script to be reinterpreted by the actors. They never met. The dialog occurred in post-production.

C.M: In the form and power of the montage and above all in the dreams of a text, of scenes to interpret, in the absolute freedom of expression, in the line between two completely different styles of truth of interpretation, in the recordings of two possible truths….

H.B.S: In the lack of directing in a traditional sense. In my previous video installations, for example, in The Bride and the Snake the bodies were like visual instruments drawing patterns in the space of the narrative. In Unlocking Passages the bodies of the actors are installed in an empty space, they embody their different worlds by their expressions, gestures and movements. The directing was limited to giving an idea about the story, the atmosphere and how to relate to an imaginary space, the blue screen.

C.M: In the frame of a situation in which obsession is fed by visual and iconic references, such as the labyrinths in The Shining or certain reminiscences from Nordic cinema that a theatre actress of Bergman, like Agneta Ekmanner, suggests. This said, the text and the dialogue, move from a real situation – the obsession of a Swedish intellectual, a friend of the Broms Sandberg family – your family – delirious author of an unpublished biography of Christina of Sweden. Now, a film installation that rediscovers in its script, fragments of diaries and writings of the Swedish sovereign, re-elaborated with the materials of a delirious life lived through the intent of reliving the times of the queen.

H.B.S: This person fascinated me, since I was a child; he was very tall, ethereal, extremely intelligent and telepathic. His home was a world apart, like going to the past. I remember when he talked about Queen Christina; about the persons he met in castles and palaces in France and Italy who had given him her letters. He was always about to write the end of her real story but continued to change it. The dead queen was among the few who “came to visit” him and he told us about their interesting discussions. One day he was found dressed in a long black coat walking in the snow without destination. He was brought to hospital where he died a few days later. I really believed he was in contact with Christina. Time doesn’t exist in the astral world. I thought of him as some kind of reincarnation of the queen with the mission to tell her true story. I was fascinated by his obsession, his total identification. Again, a story about loss and disappearance, time and space, between dream and reality. His story was in my mind for a long time but I didn’t know how to tell it. One day, on a walk, it just came to me and I wrote the script in a couple of hours.

C.M: The form of the video is radicalized in the use of the double screen: a double world, a dual screened world where the story lives in parallel times, where the asylum prison is the residual image produced by a surveillance camera, where the image itself is inscribed in the regime of control. A world that you describe in the video reinventing real and virtual spaces, historical Italian gardens and palaces already existent in the years in which Christina of Sweden lived in Rome – and set them in blue screen.

H.B.S: The sites in the video somehow represent the characters, like their homes: the claustrophobic space of the obsessed writer filled with sheets of paper, the corridors, winding staircases and labyrinths like the folds of memory, the secret world of the queen-child, the queen and her male alter ego in the infinite realm of death, that I imagined in a dark red colour, red like a dress of a queen, like a parallel world where a 17th century queen could live forever…

C.M: The voice over in English amplifies this tension; it becomes the voice of the folly, the private language of the mind, an electronic flatus vocis of ghosts….

H.B.S: Yes, the voice over was necessary since Agneta decided at the last minute to speak Swedish, which I thought was a good decision, even if it created some panic. After all she is a theatre actress, one of our greatest and her language is Swedish. The voice over differentiates the spoken word from the thought.

C.M: This said, the narrative structure of the tale enters in contrast to the visual means in the field: we, the spectators are like the writer’s prison nurses forced into the interning life forced to watch through the surveillance cameras, to which we are chained and interrogated…

H.B.S: Through a camera that tells the life of the writer without memory closed in with his madness with the writing as the only way to escape, constrained to construct a parallel reality. A biography both horrible and perfect…