Commissioned by Tabula Rasa Magazine, Agnieszka Vosloo’s The United States of Fixations explores the concept of fixation beyond the realm of an object of desire. Presented on three screens, the video installation captures the full spectrum of fixations in a series of vignettes from A to Z – a visceral immersive experience for the viewer as diverse and yet uniquely personal as the fixations themselves.
In Conversation with Agnieszka Vosloo
Text by Shane Lee
March 01, 2017
SL: Your latest film, a 3 channel video art installation The United States of Fixations premiered at Jimmy Moffat’s Red Hook Labs and it was a huge success. What was the origin of the project?
AV: When Tabula Rasa Magazine approached me about directing a film on the theme of fixations for their upcoming issue, I was immediately hooked. But I also knew right away, that if I had to pick one particular fixation, I wouldn’t be doing justice to this extremely broad and intricate subject matter.
What interested me more was finding a way to capture a wide rage of fixations, a spectrum of sorts. That’s how the idea of using the alphabet as an organizing principle was born. Each letter of the alphabet, from A to Z is dedicated to one particular fixation in a series of 26 vignettes – from Asphyxiation, Body Builders and Fire to Kissing, Ladybugs, and Zippers.
That’s what made the film so compelling. Each vignette was so uniquely different, not only in content, but tone and style. But I can also imagine how it made the project inherently more ambitious and complicated.
Yes, instead of making one short film, I was now making 26 (laughs). But I believe that was the only way to go. And yes, it was crucial to me that each vignette had its own unique aesthetic and mood, just as every fixation is different from another. Each had to be both visually and tonally distinct.
Some of the vignettes are more surreal, almost absurd like V for Vacuuming starring Daria Strokous; an incredible model and actress who embodied the character of an ideal housewife (almost as if from the 50’s) fixated with trying to achieve unattainable order.
In contrast, the strength of other vignettes lie in the fact that they seem rather mundane, as if taken from real life -- for example I is for Ironing with P J Sosko, who beautifully plays a man clearly exercising his demons while obsessively ironing strange objects. Some of the vignettes are unsettling and eerie, where others more humorous.
For B is for Body Builders, I invited 11 female pro body builders (including the current Miss Olympia, Juliana Malacarne) to star in the piece. I wanted to create the opposite of what you imagine when you think of bodybuilding. No sweat. No lifting weights. No sexualized shots. Instead the vignette is full of bright colors and playfulness. All neon pinks, baby blues, yellows, with cotton candy, ice cream and lollipops.
I put these immensely strong and beautifully muscled women, in their tiny rhinestoned competition bikinis, and had them float in a pool on children’s rubber rings and play with water guns and hula-hoops. All purposely very very feminine, to break the misconception that female bodybuilders lack femininity.
And then on the other side of the spectrum, just one letter away, there’s D for Domination staring Kelly Lee Dekay, a real-life Dominatrix with a 16-inch waist. The vignette, like it’s subject matter, has a very different tone than B is for Body Builders. Naturally it’s much darker, provocative and unsettling.
Apart from creating 26 very different vignettes, you’ve also managed to select very diverse fixations for each of them. That must have been challenging.
It was definitely a challenge, but also tons of fun, and what made this film so very different from everything I’ve directed before. The possibilities here were endless.
First I compiled a long list of real fixations, and added in some outlandish and weird ideas I thought would be interesting as fixations (and very possibly might be real). Then I looked at the whole film as sort of a puzzle, where each fixation and each film had to belong to a different family of fixations.
There were fixations with both animate and inanimate objects. Fixations with behaviors (both psychological, physical and societal), and with concepts of beauty and social norms. Fixations with certain rituals, different body parts and their functions. Those of a sexual nature. Fixations that were tactile, olfactory or visual. And then there were those that were simply too difficult to categorize, or that belonged into many different categories.
For example, for the letter C, my long list ranged from celebrities, cutting, candy crush, cross-dressing, coffee, consumerism, cleanliness, clowns, coupons, cemeteries, chocolate, and cosmetics before I ended up choosing colors as the fixation for the film.
The letter P originally had everything from poodles, panties, pain, porn, polka dots, past, perfection, plushies, psychics, pony play, plastic surgery and prostitutes before I landed on Pills and overmedicating.
Choosing the right fixation for each vignette, and then finding the right story to capture its essence was a creative balancing act. I love working with juxtapositions and what I wanted to achieve was as full of a spectrum as possible, where each vignette stands on its own as an independent distinctive film, yet together they form a fuller and deeper experience.
And then to make things even more complicated, you decided to present the film as a 3 channel video installation. It was a powerful creative choice to surround the viewer and have the film unfold simultaneously on 3 screens.
I wanted the film to be an immersive experience, to feel even more visceral like the fixations themselves. Conceptually I come up with the idea of presenting the film on 3 screens at the same time as I decided on using the alphabet.
I wanted to use the form of the film (as a triptych) and its content (as a series of vignettes instead of one narrative) to make the audience feel like they were experiencing each fixation themselves instead of being on the outside. To transport them into the world of these fixations. Make them feel like they’d entered a womb of fixations. The proverbial mother lode of fixations.
You definitely achieved that. I was transfixed when I saw it at the Red Hook Labs. I also noticed most of the audience stayed in the room for at least 2 entire cycles of the film. How long is the entire piece?
22 min from A to Z, and I truly wasn’t expecting such a strong reaction. The room got so crowded there was a line to enter it during most of the evening, as people were staying inside and watching it over and over again.
Could you elaborate on your directorial approach to the film and the title you chose for the installation?
Generally when people talk about fixations there’s always a pejorative element to it. A feeling of guilt or shame. Often ridicule. Secrecy. Judgment. For me it was the opposite. In all my work I’ve always been fascinated by the taboo. What’s considered to be the darker side of human nature. What’s hidden and repressed and perceived to be different or abnormal. I believe fixations are what makes us human and unique. And we shouldn’t be ashamed of them.
The film is a love letter of sorts to fixations. A celebration of the different fixations that make us all uniquely who we are. That‘s how I approached each vignette and each fixation. From a point of admiration. With appreciation and a sense of wonder and respect.
On a psychological level, and while conceptualizing each story, I was interested in understanding what is it about each fixation that makes us tick? What’s the mechanism behind it? How do they make one feel? Why one is fixated with a certain behavior or an object but not another?
As for the title, it’s a play on words and was born directly from my overall approach to the film. What drew me to the project in the first place was both it’s visual potential but, even more so, the psychological depth that it offered. In a way, I became fixated with fixations themselves (laughs), and the various expressions and emotional states they produce.
There are as many different fixations as they are people. We all have them, whether we’re aware of them or not, or whether we want to admit that we have them or not. Some are smaller, others fully formed and all consuming. Fixations make us human and we’re all united by them. United in different states as we experience and live out our fixations.
Apart from the scope, and the visual and narrative power of the film, what really impressed me was its casting. How did you manage to create such a diverse yet authentic cast?
The right casting has always been incredibly important to me on every project I direct. Without it there’s no point making the film. As everything else in The United States of Fixations, I wanted it to be as diverse as possible. The cast not only includes actors and models, but also NY personalities from dance, fashion and the club scene.
Essentially I had two types of performers – those that took on an imaginary fixation and channeled it, and those that actually identify with a particular fixation.
That was the case with B is for Body Builders, D is for Dominatrix, J is for Jewelry, M is for Make-up, T is for Tattoos and Y is for Yarn – in each case I found individuals who “live out” their fixations everyday and created the film organically around them, drawing from them and their experiences.
Obviously those vignettes are not documentaries, they are still highly stylized and imaginary but the person at the core of them is not an actor playing a Dominatrix but actually a real life Dominatrix. What was amazing is how these beautiful individuals trusted me with their most personal fixations and expressions of themselves.
How did you manage to convince them to bare their fixations and play themselves in the film?
That’s what directing is about. There has to be an element of trust between the talent and the director. As a director you naturally need to create a safe environment where actors or non-actors alike, can be vulnerable, but still feel protected and inspired to share the most inner parts of themselves.
In this case I believe everyone responded to my approach to the film. The place I was coming from. I wasn’t interested in sensationalism, but creating an artistic expression of who they were. Celebrating what makes them unique.
For example in M is for Makeup, I wanted to show the extreme transformative power of makeup. Ryan Burke, who stars in the vignette, has been on my creative radar for a while now and I always wanted to find a perfect project to cast him. His incredible talent takes makeup to an absolutely another level. For years, Ryan has used himself as a canvas to create different personalities with makeup. His alter egos. When I approached him he trusted me with his artistry.
It was similar with Danielle Mahoney & Will Noguchi, NY nightlife personalities who are fixated with jewels and have a stunning collection. After talking with them about their fixation and love of jewelry, in J is for Jewelry, I created an imaginary story–but one based on the real people, which made it very intriguing.
As for the actors and models I cast in their imaginary fixations, again for me it’s mostly psychological. It’s not only imagining if a certain actor, model can embody this character, but it’s digging deeper. Looking at their work, and them as people, and picking up on certain characteristics that will make them authentic and convincing in a certain part.
The film had a huge scale to it, and with a running time of 22 minutes on 3 separate screens, it could have been a feature length film. How long was the production?
We shot on and off for over a period of 6 months, mostly during the weekends and in between other projects I’ve been working on.
I had a tremendous team starting with my DPs, Ari Rothschild and Jim McMillan, producers Sabrina Banta and Hunter Abrams and stylist Louise Borchers from Tabula Rasa Magazine, as well as Brad Turner who edited the film brilliantly and Tyler Stone who created an amazing original score.
There was a lot of love and support from countless individuals who all pitched in and came to help with different aspects of the film, from locations to art-direction and props.
You’ve already directed Liam Neeson and Christina Ricci in your feature debut After.Life, and I know you have a couple of new features in the pipeline, will you be doing more fashion work and art installations?
It’s definitely something that interests me. I’m extremely visual and love creating visual worlds. Shorter forms allow you to put a greater emphasis on the visuals and be more experimental than narrative driven. There is more freedom with both style and content. It’s very freeing for me, and a good balance to my feature films and screenplays I’m working on.
For more info on the artist:
Gallery of Vignettes A–Z: