“The Role of Fear, Chapter I: From Crime to Art”, 2014,experimental documentary, Full HD, 12:05min:
“An unresolved conflict.” 13 questions for E. S. Mayorga by Clemens Wilhelm
Modern artists are generally expected to break rules and laws. Does this make them similar to criminals? What do you think artists and criminals have in common?
Both are freaky people who often remind us how fragile our ideas of social stability or security are. They observe their community looking for blind, forgotten or susceptible spots where they can operate. Maybe that is why neither artists nor criminals really fit into a social order. They move between the lines, acting indirectly. Artists need observers while criminals remain faceless.
Art like criminality is a reaction to a context and its conditions. If somebody paints flowers in watercolour while the country is being invaded, the work will be historically and socially irrelevant.
When the context is hard, some artists are pushed to commit transgressions in order to raise our attention on specific issues, like discrimination, surveillance or war. They consciously go beyond the norm in order to be effectively significant and to deliver a new or personal perspective in contrast to the whole background in front of which the work is being made, which in the end validates their actions.
In THE MURDERER FROM LA ESMERALDA, you – the artist – become a killer possessed by a red demon. In this mockumentary, shot in a sensationalist TV-style with lots of re-staged videos and eye-witness accounts, you tell the story of the art student Eduardo Mayorga who was accused of murdering three people while sleepwaking at his art school in Mexico City in 2003. This video was your graduation project. How did you arrive at this story and how was the work received at your school?
The project itself is an attempt to cast aside those weird experiences (apparitions, poltergeist, demonic possession) which shook my vision of the world, in order to see them in a more objective way. “The Murderer From La Esmeralda” is truly based on my experiences with the occult and paranormal. I know what this must sound like to you. To me, the possibilities between having experienced something supernatural or being insane was unbearable, almost embarrassing. I needed to see these recollections outside of my head, and so I decided to make “The Murderer From La Esmeralda”. To evaluate my impressions in a more objective way and to mix part of my private life in a cheap documentary fashion.
Because my own life seems weird to me, I decided to give it a cinematic look. Besides talking about paranormal phenomena, I staged the assassination of three people within the academy. This confronts a primitive and dangerous element (psycho-possessed-art student) against the arts academy, an institution of knowledge and refinement. Back in 2005, it seemed like other students enjoyed the idea of indirectly perverting the reputation of the academy.
As far as I know, “The Murderer From La Esmeralda” today still is one of the examples used for teaching documentary film making in the video workshops at “La Esmeralda” at the National Center for the Arts in Mexico-City.
Artists have often created a myth around themselves by changing their biographies. Does an artist have to have an interesting life story nowadays? Is this self-mythologisation of the artists interesting to you?
If their life or work are boring, sure they should change it. The problem is when people realize it’s all made up.
When I talk about my biography in “The Role Of Fear”, I use it as an excuse to examine other topics. In this way I can expose a personal approach and make a contrast with objective information. For example, one could talk about sex in horror films, explaining the whole moral and social background behind the images, and then subvert that information by expressing very private thoughts on the same topic. This creates a gap between the cultural patterns and the personal tastes, contrasting the norm with the exception. In other words, moving from a general to a particular point of view.
Besides, although I have been searching for an explanation for the paranormal for years, I’m not interested in finding definitive answers. Questions are a more powerful catalyst than any quick resolution.
In the next chapters of “The Role Of Fear”, I’ll extensively expose the results of these investigations and my theories on the paranormal. In my case, I’d rather say that my investigations follow the longest road to demythologisation. I also wonder what would happen if people realize it’s all true and not fiction?
In THE ROLE OF FEAR and THE MURDERER FROM LA ESMERALDA you play with your biography. It feels like the life story of the artist becomes the art itself. In THE MURDERER FROM LA ESMERALDA you take it one step further: in the end of the video it says that you committed suicide two weeks after finishing the video. When did you get interested in turning your life into fiction?
This mix of facts and fiction began as I noticed how difficult it is for other people to believe in the paranormal and how improbable it is to experience such phenomena.
In “The Murderer From La Esmeralda”, fiction and facts exchange places. Some personal parts were dramatized by actors, while the fictional murders were shown “as seen on TV”; displaying all the supposedly official documents, black and white photography and even allowing the “authorities” to analyse the facts using professional terminology.
The form in which the documentary is developed supports the veracity of the content. This means people perceive these formats – news reports, documentaries, films “based on actual events” – as synonyms of authenticity.
I wanted to take my strange life to these common places of mainstream “realism” and add more atrocities. I needed to question the veracity of it all and play with the thin line between possible and absurd.
In “The Role Of Fear” there is no need to modify or add anything. So, all references to my biography are a matter of honesty.
In THE ROLE OF FEAR you say that the medium video became your way of capturing your life and your experiments. Is it the medium video which brings art and life together? Is video capturing a “more real” live experience than film? Many artists in the 20th century have asked: Is life art?
In “The Role Of Fear” I want to point out how naïve and playful my first approach to video was, far from any artistic pretensions. Since those days the video-camera has been a very good friend of mine.
Personally, I see the relation between video and art more complex than simply documenting somebody’s life using a video-camera – like on most online video platforms. Art tends to create new meanings rather than to merely describe actions. I’d rather say that looking at art is a game based on images, sounds, materials and language. The goal of this game is to find the structure supporting the form, the secret content. That’s why many videos are not art. They’re real and maybe even look impressive, but you cannot play with them. The elements they’re made of allow no play or their lack of secrecy makes them sterile.
The main difference between film and video is the production costs and the equipment availability. Film is commonly associated with big budgets, film crews and flatbed editing. For its material transparency film is made to be projected in a dark room. In the case of video we have smaller cameras, smaller budget, non-linear editing and it is made for a TV set. Video projectors are relatively new.
Many film-makers have mixed both mediums; using video in big budget productions (like “The Blair Witch Project” by Eduardo Sánchez & Daniel Myrrick, 1999), relying on this idea of “real life” documentation and erasing the aesthetic distance in the viewer. In such cases the spectator can not avoid to get immersed in the fiction, thinking it is real.
Why do you have so much “sympathy for the devil”? What does the devil stand for? Is the devil the ultimate artist because he breaks – or makes visible – all the rules of society?
I think the Devil is the most interesting icon thoughout human history. The US-American philosopher and film theorist Nöel Carroll called him (the Devil) an “interstitial being”. An impossible mix of animals and mythological creatures: dragon, serpent, goat, woman, child, you name it. The Devil could be everything.
In films like “Häxan” by Benjamin Christensen (1922), Satan’s physiognomy and constant erection remind us of the Greek satyrs. The serpent in the garden of Eden – like Prometheus – gave knowledge to man and took him out of a pet-like state under Jahve’s laws. Jahve sentenced Satan to live in Hell just like Hades. Curiously both characters are associated with the ideas of material benefit and abundance. In recent times, the Prince of Hell has become an upper-class gentleman.
As his anatomy changes through the centuries, what he stands for changes as well. He incorporates the ideas of evil in different ages, revealing that evil is an arbitrary concept. Maybe thats why he doesn’t look like an animal anymore, because evil is a human concept. There is no evil in nature.
On the one hand, I see him as a symbol of creativity and sexual freedom, but on the other hand I can not deny all those paranormal experiences in which I could swear there was something demonic attacking me. More than sympathy, I would call it an unresolved conflict.
Sex and violence play a big role in your work. Voyeurism is especially strong in our society when it comes to sex and violence. Voyeurism is one of the driving forces of TV, cinema and the Internet. Why do you think we are so obsessed with watching crime, killers and porno?
We’re all somehow interested in other people’s lives and we like to imagine what we would do in someone else’s shoes. It makes no difference if the subject of our scrutiny is a killer or a porno star, still we look for some degree of empathy or distance. We like to put our vision of the world to the test through the eyes and actions of the other. Maybe because it is simply the safest and closest way to live an adventure we cannot have. So we recur to simulation.
Anyway, I’m convinced that this voyeurism is a consequence of bed-time-stories. Everyone got familiarized with the suspension of disbelief as a child. Now, after many years, your fairies like to get cream-pied.
Artists as well as criminals and killers are often seen as attractive and erotic. Is this the same fascination that the devil has on a lot of people? Or monsters?
Artists are mostly philanthropic and our work is mainly intellectual, which is very attractive to other intellectuals. Artists are passionate rather than erotic. I can’t avoid thinking about many other ideas associated with artists, like wild parties, drugs and spontaneity. All of them are real!
Being an artist is an agreement: the artists have to surrender to all temptations and try everything right and wrong, because this is the only possible way to discern the regulations imposed by society and our position as individuals. We must surpass every established way to attain new alternatives for other areas of knowledge. This is the only way to evolve culturally. Artists, contrary to criminals, don’t do “something” wrong, it is all part of their experimenting. Surely that will place us next to monsters or mad scientists.
In concern to criminals and killers, I’m not sure. They’re erotic only in films. In real life, I reject all kinds of violence.
You cite the horror genre as a main influence for your work. What attracts you to the horror genre? In THE ROLE OF FEAR you state: “In the horror genre, the struggle to repress sexuality and violence is a key theme”. Is it an artist‘s obligation to use exactly these forbidden ingredients, everything that gets censored: sex, violence, drugs, murder and crime?
Since I was a kid, I was very curious about sex and the only way to see female bodies without being disturbed was in horror films. I spent puberty watching “Stalker films”, like “Halloween” by John Carpenter (1978) and “Friday the 13th” by Sean S. Cunningham (1980). The stalker is a moral figure, who punishes all premarital sex activities. In this sub-genre, every time some teenagers have sex, you know who’s next to die. From my young perspective, I never cared about these subtle messages of “premarital sex equals punishment”, neither did I care about the blood and gore. I already knew it wasn’t real, this was the work of a director.
As I became aware of all the social issues portrayed as “the Monster”, my interest in the whole genre grew deeper.
Working with such controversial issues is not an obligation. Artists are free to collaborate with all other disciplines. We can work with religious institutions, biomechanical engineering, butchers, etc. The goal is to bring attention to relevant issues and to increase culture and knowledge in every direction, as a complement to science or philosophy. It is this relation with the world what makes artists so meaningful (and attractive).
The monster is everything that a civilized citizen is not. There is an undeniable lust and joy to do evil in us, you just need to watch kids at play. If actions can go unnoticed and there is no fear of punishment, people tend to do more evil things. I guess, that is why anarchy is the ultimate fear of most people in society. There is an undeniable fascination of watching the freed animal in us, the killer, the rapist, the other, the primitive, the archaic, the devil. Do we want to see the animal do its thing without any moral repercussions?
Yes, we enjoy images of destruction, violence and death. Films and video games have the function which painters like Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death had in the past: the aestheticization of violence. Even in a terrifying film, one can appreciate the use of the camera, the lights, the performance of the actors, the creativity of the director and the bodily effects provoked by the images and sounds. It is a reassuring feeling to see these representations of dangerous situations from a safe place and still get a rush of adrenaline.
You mentioned kids playing. How many times have we seen “possessed” children in films? Monsters, like kids, are pure. Kids are in the process of being repressed by education. A nice kid is mostly a repressed one: calm, obedient, clean, quiet. If you want to see a great exception, I’ll suggest “The Kid” by Charlie Chaplin (1921).
It would get very complex to answer such a big question, putting aside all the possibly related discourses attached to monsters, like racism, homophobia, the oppression of female sexuality, etc. Interstitial beings have a variety of meanings depending on the historical moment we wish to refer to.
On the other hand, there is a need for a certain repression which allows people to interact in a society. It won’t be possible to coexist, if any time you’re hungry you eat what ever is close at hand: your cat, your dog or your sexy neighbor.
Is to view the sexual drive as an opposition to civilization not a very Christian view? What do you make of the relation between images and religion? Is there a God if there is no Devil? Are we allowed to make images of the Devil if we are not allowed to make images of God?
Luckily, I don’t have any religious restrictions. I’m just an observer of all the different dogmas and the philosophies behind all religions. Maybe because I don’t know myself what I should believe in.
The idea of a good God and an evil adversary began with Zoroaster. He is responsible for monotheism and all the subsequent religious transformations. For the Greeks, every god had good and bad times. Religion changes according to geography and era.
Werner Herzog famously said: “Civilization is a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness. The common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.” How do you relate to that?
Werner Herzog sounds very poetic, but I think he doesn’t really mean it. It’s not easy to believe such fatalistic quotes coming from a successful European film-maker. Carl Sagan explained the neutrality of the universe in his TV-series “Cosmos”. If the common denominator of Herzog’s universe are murder and hostility, it refers solely to humanity. According to Sagan’s hypothesis, the universe doesn’t give a damn about bears eating tree-huggers.
The so-called media are playing a power game with the citizens, and they often use video – probably because most people still believe video to show reality. Whole societies are living in fear: the fear of crossing borders, the fear of violence, the fear of punishment, the fear of loss, the fear of foreigners, the fear of the other, the fear of exclusion etc. Do we need fear to keep the sheep together and under control? Is fear necessary to run a society? Is this the ROLE OF FEAR that your title implies? What will happen in part 2 of the ROLE OF FEAR?
Fear is the first step for big business nowadays, and the best businesses ever are weapons, war and drugs. If you control the media, you control people’s opinions and phobias. People receive an idea of evil through the media. For the Western civilizations, evil comes from abroad. Foreigners putting at risk the economy of our “glorious” country!
In Mexico, evil is represented by the numerous drug cartels, supported and concealed by the government.
The most intelligent way to detect evil and avoid fear is questioning the information coming from the news: What have I been told and what lies between the lines? What and how should I feel? Who is profiting from this information? What has been said and what is being left out? And more important: look for diverse sources of information.
In the second chapter of “The Role Of Fear”, I examine why is it so puzzling to talk about the paranormal. I’ll talk about the rational barrier that impedes further reflections on these occurrences.
“The Role Of Fear” will have five or six chapters. My intention is to examine my life in relation with the paranormal, horror film analysis, effects of fear and oppressive politics.
It’s going to take some years to finish it, but time is on my side.
E.S. Mayorga (*México 1975)
Mayorga’s artistic production instrumentalizes the horror film genre in order to examine his own personal encounters with the paranormal, investigating the tension between what he sees as an almost demonic possession experienced in his teenage days in Mexico, and the absurdity of such an event within the parameters of our material world.
Mayorga uses strategies of experimental cinema such as fragmented narrative and rhythmic disruptions to create an uncanny atmosphere, producing mis-interpretations and unexpected readings of the work, leading the viewers to subjective inquiry into the limits of perception, and what might lie behind our conventions of “horror”.
For his fascination with the occult and main-stream media strategies, the German curator Justin Hoffmann defined his work as “Pop-Romantik”. Mayorga’s work has been exhibited in cities like London, Berlin or Prague, and in countries like France, Germany, Poland, Switzerland and Mexico.
“The Murderer from La Esmeralda”, 2005, NTSC, 20min