Georgina Starr

“I rebought forty of my favourite destroyed singles and had them played simultaneously on forty record players.”

It’s difficult to summarise the art of Georgina Starr. Since the early 1990s, the artist has made use of the array of tools (video, sound, written word and live performance) at her disposal to create a rich and varied body of work. In early works, Starr engaged a cast of miniature paper figures as stand-ins for real life conversations the artist would covertly record in public spaces. Later, Starr appears in her work – though the extent to which she was performing as herself is itself part of her practice. In The Party (1995), a 25-minute video installation, Starr takes on the role of Liz (a character whose advances are rejected by another character in a previous film). As Starr tells NR below, though the role was fictional, the process of making the film instils it with autobiographic elements. Characters, motifs and themes recur throughout Starr’s work, which enable the artist to rework and reimagine earlier ideas. But it isn’t just Starr’s own oeuvre that she recreates, with much of her work taking inspiration from existing film and literature. The breadth of reference points throughout Starr’s work are demonstrative of the extent to which the artist employs a process of meticulous researching to inform her practice. 

Aspects of Starr’s work recall a childhood spent watching tv; the object in the corner of the living room which, she explains in The Voices of Quarantaine (2021), became her “gateway to another world”. Indeed, the blurring of reality and imagination, autobiography and fiction are common features of her work. Starr’s film, Quarantaine (2020), is not, as you might think, a response to the pandemic. Rather, the artist began working on Quarantaine before COVID; the film’s title referring to the French word for forty, historically also the term for a period of enforced isolation over forty days. The film tells the story of strangers who are transported to an alternative universe which the two women must navigate their way through. Across the breadth of Starr’s work, the body – the female body and feminine identity in particular – are (re)investigated. In her later works, including Quarantaine, Starr is no longer in front of the camera, with a cast of performers enabling the artist to realise her practice on a larger scale. Most recently, the artist orchestrated a live performance in collaboration with French fashion house, Hermès, which in true Starr style, is a dazzling display of colour – flawlessly synchronised and splendidly surreal. 

NR: What have you been working on recently?

GS: I have been working on a new performance artwork in collaboration with Hermès to showcase their SS22 collection designed by the brilliant Nadège Vanhée-Cybulski. We performed it on 3rd February at a one-off special event titled ‘Gelato!’ at Old Sessions House in Clerkenwell. It incorporates a large set—a huge pastel coloured mountain sculpture, a new musical score for percussion which I developed together with composer, Thomas Haines, and is performed by four female percussionists, nine dancers and eight models all wearing Nadège’s designs. It was quite epic—a cross between a theatre play, a sculptural installation, opera, dance and fashion show. The collection is really joyful and screams summer, so I began by thinking about what ‘gelato’ would sound like. I imagined metallic sounds and warmer sounds of fabric on wood—glockenspiels, triangles, drums, wooden percussion, vibraphones, and I had a vision of a magic mountain which the performers, wearing these amazing clothes, would emerge from moving in synchronization with the sounds—this was my starting point.

NR: What does the process of rehearsing or being in workshops involve? 

GS: With live performance works, the rehearsal period is more intense. I always script and storyboard, and it was the same for Gelato! There are spoken word poems in this piece as well as the music and choreography. By the time we went into workshopping in mid-December we were at a really good stage with the musical composition, and I had choreography ready to show to the dancers. We were working with four incredible percussionists who were able to immediately play the working score so that the dancers could start to interpret the live instrumentation and we could adjust the score as went, which was a brilliant way to work. The music starts out very minimally and gradually builds up as the percussive mallets are handed to the musicians. Some instructional elements were built into the score, so everyone’s movement was highly choreographed, and I had constructed my own mallets using coloured threads from the collection – so these were woven into the piece. The workshopping days were crucial to figure out if the movement and vocals I had imagined alone in my studio could even work on a grander scale! I had props too, as I wanted the performers to all begin from inside a ‘mountain’ and emerge with large circles like musical notes transforming the whole picture into a giant score. There were twenty performers to direct, so it was pretty intense. We went into full-on rehearsals for six days at the end of January and had the first dress rehearsals at the venue the day before the show. I loved this collaboration with Hermès, it was wild.

NR: How does working with performers compare to playing the role of other performers (alongside) yourself? 

GS: The casting process is always really complex as I have a very clear idea of how I want the performers to look and what voices they bring. For both the Hermès piece and my last film Quarantaine (2020), it took a long time to find the right people, months of searching and meeting people. When I perform inside my work it’s a very insular and personal process, often just me and the camera. For my film THEDA (2007), I built all the sets in my studio and worked for a year filming myself in the various Theda Bara inspired roles, so became totally absorbed into the character. The way I work with a bigger cast definitely has some connection to this, I feel the need to demonstrate rather than just describe, it’s quite mediumistic, transferring my movement and voice into them. I like to work with a mix of professional and non-professional performers as the non-pros bring something magical and otherworldly. It often feels like the less experienced person is a stand-in for me in some way—I relate to them more strongly as they are working things out on their feet and negotiating this strange environment they find themselves in. 

NR: There are characters, themes and motifs – the brain, the bubble – that reoccur in your work; did you always attend to develop your practice in this way? Or did it just occur over time? 

GS: All the pieces I’ve made from the very beginning are completely interlinked. It happens naturally that one work leads to the next, so the themes and motifs overlap and merge. Sometimes an element in a work I made twenty-five years ago might suddenly appear in something new. A performance work I made at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in 1995 called The Hungry Brain suddenly started to inform a work I was developing in 2013 which eventually became Before Le Cerveau Affamé a new performance and installation piece. In this work I created an illustrated set of predictive cards (Le Cerveau Affamé), the suits were the bubble, the hand, the brain and the cat. These cards found their way into my film Quarantaine. The cards appear in a critical scene in ‘The Grey Room’ where a group of waiting women are chosen for a card reading—the cards selected guide them to the next level of the journey in the film’s narrative. Sometimes it seems like one big Gesamtkunstwerk!

NR: As an extension of that, in The Voices of Quarantaine you make reference to De Quincey’s The Palimpsest of the Human Brain which seemed to be an apt description of your work. Would you say that your work is palimpsestic?

GS: I think my last answer definitely describes a very palimpsestic way of working. I enjoyed making the performance lecture, The Voices of Quarantaine (2021), as I got to reveal some hidden details at the heart of my film Quarantaine. There are so many layers of meaning in my work it can baffle some people, so it’s useful to be able to unpeel these for the viewer. Although the lecture itself was something of a palimpsest too. While I was reading De Quincey, I realised that his essays had directly inspired Dario Argento’s 1977 masterwork Suspiria which in turn had inspired the forest wall-mural I had painted in a scene in Quarantaine. At the very beginning of Quarantaine we follow two women through an arboreal portal in a city park which leads them into a school of instruction—the first room they encounter has the eerie wall painting. The mural in Suspiria had always haunted me so it became an ominous character within my film—it holds another portal to take the initiates onto the next stage of the voyage.

NR: How much of your work is grounded in the idea of autobiography, and to what extent does the notion of autobiography become a way to introduce (fictional) narrative?

GS: There is quite an even mix of the fictional and factual, but it’s so integrated that I often lose track of which is which. I made fictional works in the past which I performed in and people presumed they were autobiographical. An early video The Party (1995), for example, was a piece about a lonely female character who throws the perfect party for one. It began as a fictional narrative, but I did spend two days alone having a party in my studio—constructing a bar, making food, dancing, drinking elaborate cocktails. When I look back at this work it’s part of my history and feels almost autobiographical, it’s a perfect merging of the two. There are personal stories within Quarantaine, which I discuss in the lecture, these stories begin from a ‘real’ place or at least a memory of something real and gradually become so entwinned within the world I’m creating that they drift away from reality and become something totally new. 

NR: How do different mediums lend themselves to a particular work? What informs whether you use audio, film or a live performance?

GS: The idea usually informs what the piece will be.

“A memory I had about my parents burning all my records when I left home for example ended up transforming into a live sound performance piece called Top 40 on Fire (2010).”

I rebought forty of my favourite destroyed singles and had them played simultaneously on forty record players. It created a cacophonous sound at first that sounded like fire, but as each track petered out you started to hear the voices of the singers coming through and the final vocal lyric was quite profound. If I’m commissioned to make a work then it’s slightly different, although sound always plays a huge part of every work. Live works are the most difficult for me as it’s impossible to control exactly what will happen on the night. I’m pretty controlling about all the details so this can drive me insane; the uncertainty—at some point you have to let a performance live without you. When I made Androgynous Egg (2017), a live piece for Frieze a few years ago, it took me ages to let the performers just own the piece. It was performed four times a day for the whole of Frieze and it was only on day two when I realized that I didn’t need to sit in all the performances—they had it, it belonged to them now and I had to set it free, like releasing a child into the world. Quarantaine was really borne out of Androgynous Egg. I knew that I wasn’t finished with some of the subjects—the eggs, the Pink Ursula Material, the instructional poetry, even the choreography, and that I needed to make a film. Writing and making the film was my way of taking back the control I had relinquished with the performance. It meant I could close-in on the action and focus on the important details. Filmmaking is more my natural medium. I love editing with image and sound, it’s where the magic happens.

NR: In relationship to the magazine’s theme – celebration – how does your work celebrate, and explore, womanhood?

GS: I would say that it does this in every sense. I began in the early ‘90s by working with my own body and voice to create video and sound works. These works gave me an actual voice. I was suddenly able to articulate something within the work in a way that I felt I couldn’t in real life. It was a celebration of my inner world. Over the years I’ve gained the experience and confidence to transfer this and to share the ideas with performers, musicians, singers and composers so that the world becomes bigger, more complex and intense. THEDA was the last work I performed in front of the camera. It was a very physical work where I was on screen the whole time for forty minutes. Each time I screened the work at a cinema I invited different musicians to accompany it and perform a live soundtrack. I had done it a few times in London and New York when I realised that it was predominantly men that were playing the music; by some strange fluke it had worked out this way. I was invited to screen it in Berlin at an old silent movie theatre and decided that this time it should be a woman accompanying it. I tracked down this amazing soprano Sigune von Osten—diva der neuen musik, who had worked with John Cage and Luigi Nono, and she agreed to compose a new soundtrack and perform live to the film. There was something incredible about the combination of a woman (me) attempting to dissect and enact the lost films of another woman (silent movie star Theda Bara) while being interpreted and accompanied by the extraordinary vocals of a third woman (Sigune von Osten), it was a metaphysical experience—a total celebration and exploration of the female body and voice.