Dialogue: Sophie Soobramanien

Ahead of her film performance at Tyneside Cinema on August 22nd 2019, Ou est le pouce?, we talked to Sophie Soobramanien about her artistic process and her recent trip to Mauritius, the birthplace of her parents, which informs the work.

PROJECTIONS: Your film performance Ou est le pouce? includes film material, transcriptions and personal reflection on your recent visit to Mauritius, where your parents were born. Did you visit Mauritius intending to make this work or did it emerge from your experience and activity while you were there? 

SOPHIE SOOBRAMANIEN: I knew I wanted to come away from the trip with material to produce something. I wasn’t entirely certain of the form it would take but it felt right to me that film would form a core element of the work, behaving as a kind of backbone to the project that the other elements could push off against. A large part of wanting to visit Mauritius was to reconnect with much of my family that still live there. Throwing myself in socially was an important part of the trip. I wanted any process of filming or writing to be integrated in a way that didn’t distance me in a position of documenter or filmmaker: I was aware that could have been quite alienating. This sunk in further when I first arrived and tried filming candidly and everyone seemed quite uncomfortable. In many ways, the adult me was a stranger to them and trying to film them in their homes, where you’re often most vulnerable, was a jarring experience. I wasn’t confident enough yet to re-direct this energy and put people at ease. It changed my approach and the way I gathered footage. The unspoken social negotiations of these new familial dynamics were completely heightened and changed by the addition of a camera and this emerged as a strong feature of the work; one I hadn’t expected.

PROJECTIONS: You have talked about your own nostalgia for the birthplace of your parents, referring to the German notion of sehnsucht – a specific longing or nostalgia for something never experienced. Has the making of Ou est le pouce? changed how you feel or think about Mauritius, or about the idea of sehnsucht

SOPHIE SOOBRAMANIEN: Making Ou est le pouce? has definitely changed my feelings and perceptions of Mauritius. Both my parents moved over from Mauritius (in different years – my Dad aged 12, my Mum 20), and it has always run in the background that being Mauritian was our heritage. My parents have talked about coming over to the UK and there being a process of assimilation with the culture and then effectively raising their kids as ‘British’. I have always felt a disconnect from Mauritian culture, and I think in recent years I was trying to root myself by mining my parents’ childhoods. Trying to be more involved and attached to that part of myself and explore a feeling of otherness that is both projected and internalised. From looking at old photographs I found myself nostalgic for moments I never experienced, and my romanticised sentimentality was a barrier to a more nuanced and complex understanding of the island, and my parents’ lives there. Everything was a story that revolved around a picture: kitschy, tactile, classy pictures. I couldn’t get a hold of the gristly grey matter that hums away at all times, diluting the saturation.

Image from research around Sophie Soobramanien's film performance 'Ou est le Pouce?'

Mauritius now exists in my mind as a much more real place with its very specific spectrum of beautiful qualities and social/political issues. I have more of an understanding of the island’s colonial past and the way it divides opinions and people. From much of the British coverage on Mauritius, growing up I had idealised the country as an idyllic paradise that was home to a harmonious population of different races and backgrounds. It was vital for me to have that challenged and be educated on the complexities of the situation and tensions that co-exist.

With my exploring the idea of sehnsucht, I wanted to interrogate the authority and seduction of an image, as for me that’s what shaped the sensation. Through undercutting the nostalgia repeatedly during the trip, I became interested in sehnsucht’s shadow side – a specific sense of expectation and searching. In the end, much of film became about expectation itself, and watching the footage back I could feel the weight of my searching. I was wanting to find something rooted; a connection – those filmic gems that would edit themselves. What came through more prominently were the in-between, inconclusive moments where it’s a little awkward, and the subtle frustrations that go with it.

Image from research around Sophie Soobramanien's film performance 'Ou est le Pouce?'

PROJECTIONS: The event combines film and live reading. Can you tell us more about how the different elements come together, and why you have decided to enforce the liveness of a performed reading on the film format, rather than creating a contained film work? 

SOPHIE SOOBRAMANIEN: I wanted the work to maintain a bittiness, the film itself feeling like lots of moments stitched together. I felt a live element would add a layer that could emphasise this as well as highlighting a transience to the experience of viewing it: the conditions would never be the same again. Some translation is effected within the film, some is carried out live. You hear my reactions on screen and then, live, I extend those into more developed thoughts. A lot of the trip relied on live translation in the moment or after, and it felt like I was constantly getting fragments of the whole context. (This was an experience I was used to as I’ve grown up hearing my parents speak creole but have never fully understood it. I have always loved listening and letting the language come in and out of focus, stumbling across parts I can translate – or if I feel something sounded vital I will ask what they said.) When I returned to Newcastle and started editing, I tried piecing all these memories, conversations and journeys together and it was very un-smooth and disjointed. I realised that what I had brought back from the trip wasn’t right for a contained and whole film.

Image from research around Sophie Soobramanien's film performance 'Ou est le Pouce?'

I am also interested to see how my placement within the cinema will be read and what it will do to change the space. I could be read as a lecturer, translator; in some position of authority at the front next to a large screen. This feels like an exciting role to play around with and useful for talking about different aspects of translation: the ease with which one can betray the meaning of a word or sentence when context, tone, nuances are missed out; the arrogance of expecting translation and the emotional labour that goes into it; and the guilt for needing something translated.  

PROJECTIONS: Some of the material was also included in Islanders, the project you co-devised with Giles Bailey, Jamie Hammill and Nellie Saunby in 2018. Did the process of making Islanders influence how you are thinking about this solo project and your visit to Mauritius, since it was a project about islands?

SOPHIE SOOBRAMANIEN: I think the way we developed Islanders did sink into my thinking around my visit to Mauritius. Discussions we had about island-ness, its associations, and the mentalities that can develop from being isolated in that way definitely fed into my research on Mauritius. A lot of the themes are resonant in both projects; a constructive and fragmentary approach to identity, an attempt at expanding upon how something sits in the popular imagination, and a pathos that belies trying to locate meaning.

The processes involved in developing Islanders did teach me a lot about less inhibited making and removing a self-conscious voice through fast decision-making. The collaborative element of Islanders set the projects vastly apart and it was very different editing to myself vs to three other artists: it gave Islanders a different pace. Also, together we set out plans for the performance and films and what material would fit into each part. With both Islanders and Ou est le pouce? lots of the material was gathered without thinking about how it would all fit together.

Image from research around Sophie Soobramanien's film performance 'Ou est le Pouce?'

PROJECTIONS: The Projections event commission supporting Ou est le pouce? originally came out of an open call application you made last year. What attracted you to making a film-performance, and this work in particular, for the cinema rather than a gallery or project space context? 

SOPHIE SOOBRAMANIEN: Within my practice I feel excited about engaging with cinematic forms and altering expectations from the inside. Through using the powerful dynamic set up by the context of the cinema it feels possible to challenge homogenous modes of thinking in direct and energetic ways. Attention is undivided and you can play with the dominance offered to you via the large screen and surround sound. The site of the cinema has tighter constraints than the site of the gallery. It tends to support full immersion or escapism and you will usually see narrative, linear pieces on the big screen. I like this pre-supposition of a blockbuster in a cinema and perhaps the contrast between expectation and reality leaves you more in the wind and more open to be affected by something. It is also unusual to have a performer alongside a cinema screening and this alone feels like reason to try it.

PROJECTIONS: You’ve been developing this work and working with the material from Mauritius for some time, do you see this film-performance as the final realisation of this project or will you continue to develop it beyond the event on 22 August? If that’s possible to predict!

SOPHIE SOOBRAMANIEN: Yeah, I’m not entirely sure, but I feel that there is much more in the project to work with. I don’t think I will be working with the same footage again, however I have so much material I haven’t used which I want to do something with in the future, in a different iteration of the work. This film-performance for 22 August feels to be a complete thing in and of itself, however and maybe future work on Mauritius will just be building around it. A lot of my practice is concerned with personal and collective histories and how we place ourselves within these topographies, so the themes of this project will circulate within my films time and time again, I think.

Dialogue is a new series of interviews with artists and curators involved in the Projections programme.

20 August 2019