Annika Larsson is a Swedish artist working mainly with film, video, performance and installation. She is interested in incidental but meaningful gestures and rituals, in corporal-linguistic patterns of behavior that conceal hierarchical social power structures. Her works have been widely shown internationally, at institutions including Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel; Fundacion la Caixa, Barcelona; Le Magasin, Grenoble; Kunsthalle Nürnberg, Nürnberg; ICA-Institute of Contemporary Art, London; ZKM,Karlsruhe; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; S.M.A.K., Gent and Musac, Lyon. She has participated in biennials such as 49th Venice Biennial, 8th Istanbul Biennial and 6th Shanghai Biennial among others. Larsson lives and works in Berlin.
Originally published on September 27, 2021
Salome Kokoladze: One of your most recent projects is called “Non-Knowledge, Laughter and the Moving Image.” Laughter is a very interesting phenomenon, partly because majority of animals do not seem to have this ability to laugh (if they do, it is usually only in response to tickling). And even though laughter was thought, for centuries, to be an inherently human trait, it has somehow been associated with being beyond humanity (witches, hysterical women, or possessed humans were believed to laugh uncontrollably). My question is whether contrary to the popular belief that we lose ourselves through laughter, we actually find ourselves, our humanity through it?
Annika Larsson: Yes, this thought of laughter being an inherently human trait stretches back to Aristotle. However, as the scholar Mary Beard points out in her book Laughter in Ancient Rome, contrary to the common belief that Aristotle mentions it in his writings about laughter “as a display of superiority,” the actual source is more likely Aristotle’s discussion of the human body and the role of the diaphragm. Here he asserts that “the fact that humans alone are susceptible to tickling” is “due to the fineness of their skin.” In other words, we are susceptible to tickling, because human bodies are responsive to touch — that is, they are affected by other bodies and affect other bodies.
As you also point out, responsiveness to tickling is not unique to the human, but exists in other animals too, such as rats for example. But we could also extend this to other forms of affective tickling that takes place between and inside organisms, bodies, technologies and environments.
Despite history’s opposite claims of assigning laughter to either nature or culture, one common view has been of laughter as a force and eruption in need for social regulation and control, including the self-control of the human subject over their own laughing body. As you mention, the common belief has been that persons who could not control their laughter were possessed by unnatural forces, from the divine to the devil. With the civilizational process of laughter, different forms of laughter also became ascribed to different bodies, where uncontrollable laughter came to be a proof of weakness, vulgarity, wildness or deviancy belonging to “the Other, the Savage, the Child or the Woman.”
Jack Halberstam draws similar parallels around “wildness”, which he states “names simultaneously a chaotic force of nature, the outside of categorization, unrestrained forms of embodiment, the refusal to submit to social regulation, loss of control, the unpredictable” but what “has also served to name the orders of being that authority comes to tame.” My approach to laughter is in close proximity with Halberstam’s writings on “wildness.”
But I am also interested in how moving image technologies participate in the affective ecologies of laughter. Here I am interested in how they have been serving as instruments of mapping, capturing or eradicating certain forms of laughter, as well as in them as affective and sensing systems and machines. But mainly, I am interested in how these technologies participate in processes of formation and deformation, and what role they play in what matters and what is excluded from mattering.
So to come to your question whether we could find ourselves and our humanity through laughter, first we might need to ask us what Sylvia Wynter asks: “What Does It Mean to Be Human?” in a system that has rendered some of us deviant. Perhaps the throbbing of laughter across organisms, bodies, and technologies can help us understand how unstable and inhuman we actually are, that we are neither outside the world nor free (to participate or laugh when we decide to), but rather that we are interconnected with everything around us and inside us.
SK: Are you interested in the state of drunkenness, for example, in videos like “The Discourse of the Drinkers” and “Europe”, for the same reasons you are interested in the notion of laughter?
AL: Yes, exactly. In drunkenness one can find forms of human-liquid laughter. This sort of laughter can also be found in other forms of human-nonhuman encounters and interactions, like human-plant laughter (cannabis), human-machine laughter (moving images, robots, computer systems) and human-wind laughter (the tickling wind). These intensive temporary states alter both our participation in the world as well as our perception of the world, which makes them interesting places to explore.
SK: The body has its own logic in a way, which often does not align with our lived realities. How do you position yourself, as a person who is holding the camera, in relation to the bodies that you are filming? What is the logic of the camera in relation to the logic of the body?
AL: Indeed, I feel very connected to what you are describing. Filming for me is a very tactile and bodily experience, full of improvised movement where things emerge rather than are planned ahead of time. Here I see the camera/lens/microphone both as extensions and transformations of my own body and perception, which might not bring me closer to the truth of things, but which puts me in contact with things in a different way, and which adds an additional point of view, another layer of reality.
SK: While focusing on the corporeal aspects of connectivity, it seems like you use language very scarcely in your work. However, still in pieces like “Animal,” conversations carry an important weight. As an artist who primarily observes movement and the body, how do you approach and incorporate language in your work?
AL: For many years I avoided language in my films. In my early work the only person that speaks is in fact a machine (the synthesized voice of a CGI character in “New Gravity” from 2004). In my later work people do speak, but often, as you point out, in a conversational manner, in states of affect or as a performative act. When approaching language with my film “Animal,” language was in many ways already estranged through the protagonists’ animal costumes. Also, the conversation between the characters in “Animal” circles much around being in that in-between place of simultaneously being in character and out of character.
Moreover, in “The Discourse of the Drinkers” language is performative, and functions both as something that reveals and protects. Here the identities that take form through language are temporary rather than fixed. Many persons in the bar re-invented themselves throughout the evenings out of a need to protect their integrity or through states of drunkenness. What I learned through this is that it is possible to connect with people beyond language, even when their names and stories are made up. I guess the language that interest me is one that is polyphonic, affective and situated. It is very similar to how I see filmmaking, as a sort of grasping, full of hesitation, cuts, affect, rhythms, paradoxes, as well as of openings.