P. Staff’s Kunsthalle Basel Show May Burn Images into Your Retina

A typical P. Staff film is both disturbing and alluring, a jolt to the senses that you might have trouble shaking. Weed Killer, their 2017 breakout, found acclaim in New York and Los Angeles museums by invoking Catherine Lord’s memoir about her battle with cancer and the impact of chemotherapy. Staff’s densely edited film prominently featured high-definition thermal imaging, causing many of the performers to appear in shocking shades of highlighter orange in some memorable shots.

On Venus, a 2019 film that debuted at the Serpentine Galleries in London, likewise received positive notices. With its jarring images of animals whose hormones, semen, and urine are being industrially farmed followed by a poetic meditation on life on Venus, the film has a hypnotic effect. It later appeared at the 2022 Venice Biennale.

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Now, Staff has returned with a show at the Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland comprising a five-part holographic installation, a new single-screen film, sculptures, etchings, and more. Titled “In Ekstase,” the show contains the same off-putting, gorgeous quality as many past Staff endeavors, along with an emphasis—sometimes implied, sometimes explicit—on bodily agency and trans identity.

Ahead of the show’s opening last week, ARTnews spoke with the London- and Los Angeles–based artist by FaceTime call during installation. Ahead of the call, Staff sent over a link to a new film in the show, La Nuit Américaine, along with an unusual recommendation: “it’s best watched on full screen, in the dark, with headphones!”

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

ARTnews: Why did you ask me to watch La Nuit Américaine in the dark, with headphones?

P. Staff: I think the reason that I enjoy making film and video for galleries in particular is I’m able to have an influence in the space beyond the screen, to anticipate how you get to the room before you even watch the film. It’s a paltry version of that to ask you to watch it in the dark. Although I’m working as a filmmaker, it feels choreographic. It feels corporeal. It’s a whole experience. I try to be very specific. If a work is made to be watched on your phone, versus on the side of a building, I want to be as sensitive as possible to the conditions that come with that. If you’re going to watch it on your phone, I want to think about your hands that are holding the phone.

It’s interesting you say “corporeal,” because I’m thinking back to On Venus, your film installation at last year’s Venice Biennale, where the floors were reflective. They had cracks in them, and there was an emphasis in the sculptural elements on leaks—it was very bodily. How do you envision a space as being corporeal?

I’m the first test subject. I’m patient zero. Sometimes I’m chasing pleasure. Sometimes I’m chasing perversity. I think it’s about being a little bit greedy, in a way. I’m sort of playing chicken with the museum and the viewer, seeing how much I can disturb myself first. I don’t think I necessarily am working with the desire to shock, but I do want to trouble, not always with a negative connotation, but to just unsettle a little, to move something just enough off its axis. You become more sensitive. Maybe it’s about becoming more receptive, kind of weakening resistance before subjecting you to something. Maybe that’s about shifting the color of the lights, maybe it’s about balancing the space.

A vast gallery with purple lighting. At its center, on the floor, is a screen showing what looks like a close-up of the sun against a blue sky.
P. Staff, La Nuit Américaine, 2023.
Photo Philipp Hänger/Kunsthalle Basel

How does that relate to La Nuit Américaine?

This film was made as a self-contained work, but it’s positioned in the Kunsthalle show in the final room. In the four rooms that precede it, there’s a deliberate sense that by constantly pulling at the body and exploding the body, there’s this sort of violent, pleasurable [feeling], like pulling your guts out and putting them back in in the wrong order or something, or like seeing what happens to the body when you push it to its limits. And yet, you don’t really encounter actual bodies. There is something about reaching the final room of the show, where suddenly you’re watching people in the street, crowds of people, a city infrastructure—these things of the social world. I think it kind of takes on a different weight. You’re in the world in some capacity, and you’re in this world that is inverted or temporarily sliding out of coherency.

As you’re editing a work like this, do you have a plan for how you’re going to do it, or do you work more impulsively?

More the latter. I try to become so deeply familiar with the footage, that in a way I could play through all the raw footage in my head. When it comes to editing, it can be intuitive, haptic, accidental. You know, I find that the process of editing is actually so physical. This new film that you just watched doesn’t have this so much, but in a lot of the older video works, there are often these heavy cuts to black. I would put in those moments when I wanted to blink. I would often just put in this moment of: Okay, I’m blinking 30 seconds into this shot, so I’m going to put it into the film.

With this new work, I dreamed it in my head so intensively that the process was really intuitive and actually very quick. I’ll sit and do this very forensic editing, but then I’ll turn off all the lights, put the film on really big, and play it through, try and just be like any other viewer, test my own limits, my own tolerance. With this work, there was a lot of trying to figure out how much you can register an image with how little it’s actually shown to you. In those later sections, where the cutting is really one or two frames at a time, I was trying to pull out the ones where the image really burns into your retina, even if you only see it for a split second.

It does create afterimages, almost. This made me think of what structuralist filmmakers were doing by using strobing imagery—most notably Tony Conrad with his flicker films. Are you consciously in dialogue with those works at all?

Oh, completely. I did my undergrad at Goldsmiths in London, and I never wanted to go back to formal education. But I did do what was called the Associate Artist Programme at LUX, which was at the time run by Ian White, Ghislaine Leung, and Mike Sperling. My cohort was Ed Atkins, Laure Prouvost, James Richards, Luke Fowler. We would hang out in the LUX archives, which is essentially the London Film-makers’ Co-op archives, and just watch shit. I always felt like I had the least fidelity to film—I chose to do the Lux AAP program, but I was mostly making dance works at that point. But there was obviously something about this relationship between the moving image and the physical, corporeal experience that I was gravitating toward. That’s certainly not to say that the other artists in that program were super traditional filmmakers or anything, but I always felt a little uneasy with it. You asked if I’m in dialogue with Tony Conrad or Lis Rhodes, and yes, there is a dialogue, but I don’t feel I don’t feel like a good student. I can’t get comfortable with it, but I’m completely indebted to it.

The words 'IN EKSTASE' are shown on a wall five times over in a darkened room.
P. Staff, In Ekstase, 2023.
Photo Philipp Hänger/Kunsthalle Basel

Works like Weed Killer, your 2017 film inspired by Catherine Lord’s memoir about her experience with cancer and chemotherapy, are more explicitly rooted in your experience as a queer person. Do you feel like that hangs in the background of this Kunsthalle Basel show?

Yeah, completely. It’s about understanding that in being trans, having this queer experience, things hold weight, things have meaning. It’s not a singular didactic way of reading the work. It’s not the only thing that a person can take away from, and I don’t think it’s an aspect that people need to be constantly reminded of: “Oh, this was made by a trans person.” You know, as much as I think art institutions love that at the moment, there is a part of me that’s like, yeah, there are certain images, certain gestures, certain ideas that come with weight. I don’t know, it’s a kind of accumulated meaning that it might not have for someone else of a different experience. And I like that—I’m happy that that’s in there. I’m happy to let those parts of myself bleed into the work or something. And certainly The Foundation [a 2015 film about the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles] is more explicit about that stuff. For me, On Venus was a super trans work, and I had conversations with like other transfeminine, trans women, trans friends who were totally on that wavelength. And at the same time, I think it can be totally not that at all, and that’s also totally fine by me.

A fan-like pink form with the words 'your face' cast over it.
P. Staff, In Ekstase, 2023.
Photo Philipp Hänger/Kunsthalle Basel

Tell me a bit about In Ekstase, the show’s titular piece.

It’s a similar setup to the show that I just had at the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona. It’s five holographic fans in a row on the wall, and it’s made and edited just like a five-channel video piece. I work with a brilliant programmer who syncs everything. The one here at the Kunsthalle is kind of more like a video poem, so sort of like that second half of On Venus. There’s text on screen, but it’s also really rooted in a sort of rhythmic visual capacity. It feels really old-fashioned to say video poem, but never know quite what other ways to talk about these works.

By having these five different kinds of floating orbs, they feel kind of like protagonists. The poem jumped between the different screens, with different kinds of lights and color and little bits of handmade animation, for lack of a better word. It’s a poem that is groping at trying to articulate this roiling feeling of coming up on drugs, and you don’t know if you’re gonna be able to handle it or not, these kind of moments where pain and pleasure are kind of sliding into each other and you’re trying to figure out if maybe you just submit to the pain that it will stop hurting.

The text really is quite promiscuous with who the protagonist is, what body is being described. The final section is all five of the screens repeating and flashing, saying things like ”I am alive and you are dead.” It’s deliberately ambiguous whether that’s me talking to myself or whether that’s me talking to you, the viewer, or whether the apparatus has sort of developed its own agency or autonomy and is trying to say like, “We the machines are alive and knew that flesh people are dead.” This work is trying to be a bit like, “What is living? What is animation? What is censored?” By applying some of this logic of structuralist film or the flicker film, it’s almost like a little private joke with myself that I’ve scanned film onto a hologram. It collapses disciplines in a way that deliberately resists some of the fidelity that I feel as an artist.

The film itself is neither alive nor dead too. It’s in between.

Exactly. My undergrad thesis at Goldsmiths was about trans figures in films as kind of becoming undead, endlessly alive—you know, animated puppets, but not really living. It was mashing together Paris Is Burning with Gothic literature and trying to understand where those might kind of elucidate or complicate each other. Sixteen years later, I’m still kind of prodding at the same court, but it’s my own.

A room lit an acrid shade of yellow with a net hanging under its ceiling.
P. Staff, Afferent Nerves, 2023.
Photo Philipp Hänger/Kunsthalle Basel

Perhaps it’s just because I watched La Nuit Américaine on the day that orange smog covered New York, but as I experienced it, I thought about ecological disaster. I also had this thought when I saw On Venus in Venice, actually—that it’s partly about where we’re headed, in terms of climate change. Am I right in thinking that?

I think that it’s probably something that people are inevitably going to feel watching the work, and it’s a feeling that I have no desire to block or to deny. But do I feel like I’m making ecologically conscious work? Not necessarily. But, you know, I’ve been living a good portion of the year in LA for almost 10 years, and it’s hard not to feel like I’m in dialogue with some version of an apocalypse, you know?

I think On Venus and La Nuit Américaine both have a relationship to horror. Certainly, with this new film, I was thinking: What could be more terrifying than the sun rising and setting every day? I certainly feel, as a foreigner in the US, that sometimes, the parking lot can be the most terrifying place, just because the world feels overwhelming. It’s been fun watching this new film and hearing people comment that it feels like a kind of climate apocalypse zombie film. There’s one scene where there’s a family on the beach, and then suddenly, the camera pulls up to try and catch the end of a plane flying overhead. Someone here at the Kunsthalle was like, “It’s like that family are the last ones left, and that’s the last plane leaving.” It’s a feeling that’s in the air right now. I’m happy to channel it.

Watching it, I thought maybe less of the zombie stuff and more of films like Skinamarink, a recent experimental horror movie about kids trapped in a house that is cast almost entirely in darkness. There’s so little light in both that film and yours that viewers must revel in the darkness. You can’t really fight it, because at a certain point, what’s on screen is mostly just darkness.

That’s interesting. Maybe that is there, in a sense. As a viewer, you’re left to your own devices. You’re left to grope around in the darkness. Your hand’s not being held.

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