︎︎︎ THE FILM
ALISA WELBY: ON THE LIMINAL STATE OF FLOATING IN-BETWEENBY MARIE ALBERTO
HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE YOUR PRACTICE?
It’s always been tricky to define. I often call myself a multi-disciplinary art director, I’m not tied to one specialism and I often find myself floating between new and different mediums. It’s exciting because I’m always dipping in and out of new experiences, and learning new things. In recent years, my projects have often combined different specialisms, processes and techniques: from book-binding, print and digital based graphic design, dark-room and cyanotype developing, screen-printing, riso-printing and so on.
Since young, photography has always been a huge part of my creative practice, specifically analogue 35mm and 120mm photography. I’m interested in creating visual imagery, but nowadays I find that I prefer directing shoots, rather than being the one physically shooting with the camera. I feel I have more creative control that way, and am able to oversee and direct, rather than being technical about shooting. In recent years, I’ve worked with a lot of graphic design too: editorial design and book-making in particular. Moving image was new territory for me until this year, when I started to realise that I was curious about making films as a way of telling stories. I have a lot of ambitions and goals for experimenting with more moving image in the future.
CAN YOU TELL ME MORE ABOUT THE CONCEPT OF YOUR FILM “IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE”?
The project is called ‘Hyphen’. It explores the notions of home, belonging, identity and migration. It addresses something that I call the ‘hyphenated condition’: the liminal state of floating in-between, resonating to those that are diasporic, such as first or second generation immigrants, and also the dual-heritage. The project arose from personal struggles with questioning my own sense of ‘home’, desiring to trace back my cultural heritage and roots.
As a dual-heritage second generation immigrant born in London, I have often felt like the hyphen, stranded and floating somewhere in-between. What was key for me in beginning the project was to connect with others who resonate in the same way, and build a community through collaboration and story-telling. I met Satoko at a traditional Japanese Shamisen concert one evening, which I had attended in the hopes to connect with the Japanese community living in London. She had recently performed a piece entitled ‘In The Middle of Nowhere’, which expressed her personal struggles and conflict with Japanese and Western cultural differences. It just felt perfect to collaborate together and capture her story through the medium of dance and film. Through her dance itself she tells the story, you can see the confusion and conflict, and it’s beautiful, it’s something that resonates with so many of us.
WHAT DOES TRAVELLING MEAN TO YOU?
Travelling is hugely important to me. Growing up with a Japanese mother and a New Zealand father, I’ve always had this combination of cultures, values and traditions, and always such a huge desire to travel and see the world. My best artwork and photographs come from when I’ve travelled, when I feel the most free and the most at peace. London has a way of pushing you, always telling you to move faster and faster. I think I wouldn’t create what I create today if I hadn’t had the privilege of traveling, it teaches me about the world and about different cultures and ways of living, it pushes me out of my comfort zone. Every time I come back to London feeling more inspired, but I also come back heart broken and with more desire than ever to travel again. I think I’ve never been one to stay still, to stay in one place and feel content with that. I can’t wait to experience living in other countries one day, and to explore my mother and father’s homelands in more depth.
HOW DID WATCHING SATOKO’S LIVE DANCE PERFORMANCE CHANGE YOUR PERCEPTION OF HEARING HER STORY?
After meeting her at the Shamisen concert, we ended up going to a restaurant with her mother from Japan, and some of her Shamisen concert community friends. Over dinner, I was so moved when I heard her tell her story, because it felt similar to my struggles and conflicts, yet from the perspective of a Japanese born and raised woman instead. But it doesn’t compare to when you see her perform in real life and when she tells her story through dance. I’m not one to know much about contemporary dance, but after seeing her perform, I could truly see and feel the conflict and confusion expressed through her dancing. I could also see how passionate and confident she was as a dancer. It made me think from my mother’s perspective, when she migrated here many, many years ago as a first-generation immigrant. She dances as if she’s battling something within herself, conflicted and going back and forth, floating in-between the ‘yes’ (western culture and values) and her ‘no’, her Japanese values and background. There’s also an overlap of Japanese and English words in the soundtrack, which emphasises this confusion and this cross-cultural overlap that I too resonate with.
I realised how important it was that I put together this film for Satoko, not just for the project. I really wanted to keep it authentic, as an opportunity for her to express herself and be herself, creating something that Satoko would be so happy with. It was a funny time that we shot the film because one or two weeks later things drastically changed in the UK because of the covid-19 pandemic. Satoko was due to leave London and go home to Japan two weeks after the shoot, so I think it was a poignant timing for her too, to film her final dance in London before having to go home and leave the new life she had created here in London. It was really special for me to meet her, so coincidentally and serendipitously, it felt like it was meant to be. It really proves that it doesn’t matter where in the world you are from, or what language you prefer to speak, creativity can bring people together and form connections.
HOW DID YOU PLAN THE CHOREOGRAPHY WITH SATOKO?
I had no involvement in terms of dance choreography, and I focused solely on the roles of art director, film director and producer. It was Satoko’s dance, Satoko’s story to tell. It wasn’t my place to step in and direct that, especially as I have no background in dance whatsoever. I don’t consider myself to be a dance film-maker, or a choreographer of course. I’m an art director/film-maker who captured the story of a woman who happens to be a dancer, and who happens to use her dance as a way of expressing this story.
HOW DID YOU DIRECT THE TEAM ONSET?
I directed the creative team, the cinematography, and had all say in art direction and visual styling. We shot her piece in one take using a gimbal, it didn’t feel right to interrupt her during a dance so personal, and then afterwards we asked her to repeat one or two small sections of the dance to capture a static, wide shot. I felt it was important to keep it authentic to her, to find a nice balance between styling and directing, but also keeping authentic elements of herself.
WHAT WERE THE STRUGGLES?
Funnily enough, I think one of the struggles of the shoot was around language barriers and cultural differences within the team. It was so fascinating to collaborate with a predominantly Japanese creative team and to direct them. They were all perfectly fluent in English, but it felt important to me to encourage Japanese speaking and to create a small microcosm of a Japanese community on the day of filming. I just wish my Japanese language skills were better, as I felt like I would have been able to interview and converse with the team more effectively than combining English with broken Japanese. It was interesting to learn about the different ways of thinking and approaching creative projects, and the different formalities, values and ideas that came together when a combination of Japanese born and raised creatives, and British-Japanese creatives came together.
THERE ARE SENSES OF FRAGILITY AND DELICATENESS OFTEN CAPTURED IN YOUR WORK, DID YOU APPROACH THE PROJECT IN THE SAME WAY FOR SATOKO?
Yes, you’re right. I always capture these subtle, delicate details in my work. I am often drawn to details and intimate moments, and I feel like you can get close to someone and their story this way, finding little details about them. Perhaps it is the ‘nostalgic and romantic’ side to me, like we said earlier. I was clear when directing my camera team about the type of shots I wanted: a lot of details of Satoko’s hands and her footwork, and small moments as she touches her hair for example. This way it gives the viewer a better insight into Satoko’s emotions and personality, to slow down and look a little closer. It helps to emphasise the story she is telling, you can really see and understand the conflict and confusion throughout her performance, from the way her hands and feet grip and move etc.
HOW DO YOUR MUTICULTURAL BACKGROUNDS INFLUENCE YOUR VISUAL LANGUAGE?
I think my nostalgic and sentimental approach to my creative work is influenced by my cultural background. I have subconsciously been hugely inspired by both Japanese and New Zealand aesthetics and design, and the Slow communities and philosophies associated within both cultures. Often, I think my work maintains a simple and organic visual language, perhaps timeless in style and minimal at times. I’ve always been inspired by natural elements and that reflects in my work and its visual languages. I often work with natural light and materials. Just as my project ‘hyphen’ addresses, I have always straddled between England, Japan and New Zealand, figuratively and physically, and this sense of longing perhaps reflects in my work. Lately, I am fascinated by the cross-cultural experiences of those who live in the West whilst having a very different, separate ethnic background, Japanese in my case. My daily life, such as the foods I eat and the languages I speak, are constantly a mish-mash of these different, confused cultures, and I love that I am able to live here in London yet also experience tiny little microcosms of other cultures at the same time.
DOES SLOWNESS MAKES YOU APPRECIATE THINGS MORE?
There is a quote, ‘When you move half as fast, you notice twice as much’. Slowness is something that I think about all the time, particularly in the last two years. I wrote my final year thesis back in January on the topic of Slow Design, entitled ‘Slowly But Surely: On Slow Design, Social Acceleration and the Commodification of Time’, and funnily enough a lot of my writing was based on Japanese and New Zealand aesthetics and design, for example, there’s a beautiful community of sustainable slow designer’s in New Zealand, as well as of course traditional Japanese philosophies and aesthetics.
Living in a city like London is overwhelming, and I constantly find myself being enthralled with anxious thoughts, feeling the pressure to produce and create, and to never rest. It’s why I strive so much for slowness, yes it makes you appreciate things more, and in the context of design, it’s also about sustainability, consuming less, and counter-forcing the capitalist way of living we’ve become accustomed to.
WHAT DO YOU APPRECIATE AND MISS THE MOST IN THIS CURRENT TIME OF THE PANDEMIC?
It’s made me slow down and appreciate a lot about the things we take for granted. Our body and our health being one of them. It’s also made me gain a wider perspective, and realising that so many of the small, superficial things we worry about don’t matter. I miss my loved ones. I miss the certainty of routine and schedules, and having a plan for the future, but then the more I think about it, the more I realise the way we used to live wasn’t right and we can’t go running back to that as soon as this is over.