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SPOTLIGHT on… INSTINCT: a queer metaphysical love story

INSTINCT

INSTINCT is a queer metaphysical love story that weaves itself through real and imagined sexual encounters across darkrooms, forest cruising zones, and highway shoulders. Immersive and deeply layered, the film presents fantastical playgrounds where bodies imagine themselves in a multiplicity of forms and long for encounters without preconceived notions of what other bodies desire, what they will need, or how they should be touched. Instead, INSTINCT asks: what does it mean to actively (un)learn what we might assume about another body’s sex, gender, and desire?

We interview film collaborators Mad Kate, Adrienne Teicher, Marit Östberg, and Ester Martin Bergsmark for a deeper look into the creation of the film and process behind its evolution.

 

An Interview with the Creators

 

PLTV: INSTINCT has been seven years in the making. Can you share some of the process, from your perspective, that led to the film’s creation?

Mad Kate: As many ideas are, they start bubbling up under the surface very early on, often years before they see any kind of action. I remember in 2011 I was interested in mixing my work as a musician with my work in the queer porn scene and I thought about creating a music video for my song Leather Jacket.

Leather Jacket is about my relationship to masculinity and about my personal fantasy of cruising in male darkroom spaces. I imagined creating a music video that would “actually” be porn, shot in the basement of FICKEN 3000, which was one of my favorite cruising spots. At that time, I wanted more representation of different forms of masculinities inside queer porn and was hoping to involve more bisexual men in my scenes. I was interested in the question of how to portray “queer porn” in a scene with a cunt-bodied and a penis-bodied person — if and how it were possible. I wasn’t familiar with much work that was able to do this. Around that time I approached Marit, who I had worked with before in Share, Sisterhood, and When We are Together We Can Be Everywhere, and whose films I admire greatly. Our first conversations intersected with the moment in my life that I met my partner Adrienne, who helped me to create the kind of queer-imaginary sex I wanted to have IRL and that I wanted to portray on the screen. The conflation of all these events led to the creation of this film.

Adrienne Teicher: I know that Kate loves working with Marit and had wanted to make a film with Marit for a long time, and somehow Ester Martin came into our orbit. We saw them present their film Shemale Snail and we asked them if they would join the project. One of our goals was to present different forms of queerness. For me I wanted to understand what it is to have sex as a trans woman on screen, who has not undergone a physical transition.

PLTV: Gender plays a big theme in the film. Which parts stand out to you as symbolic representations of gender?

Mad Kate: Gender is huge, yes. But so are bodies. I mean they already are fluid and diverse, always and already and with and without modifications, diverse and spectral in their form(s) — just as these forms are spectral outside of the human body and across all sentient forms. All those forms, the phallus, the vulva, the folds and enfolding, these are all natural forms repeated endlessly in nature. The way that humans have tried to categorize and place boundaries on this beautiful spectrum of forms, create dyads among us bodies, this process has inflicted so much violence on ourselves as humans.

Adrienne Teicher: It was our desire to de-normalize the way that viewers of the film see bodies. There is this word “apprehension” which means both “understanding” as well as “capturing”, like the police apprehend the criminal. So in understanding something, going, “aha, I see a penis” or “I see a clitoris” we participate in the containment, the restriction in the vast spectrum of possibilities.

There is a moment, normally very short, between seeing and apprehension in which this spectrum remains open, and we wanted the film to hold the space open for as long as possible.

Marit Östberg: We were lucky to have Ester Martin Bergsmark as DoP. They had been working with trans* and non-binary themes for many years in their own filmmaking and could come up with many creative ideas about how to explore non-conforming images of sex and bodies — for example how to experiment with close-ups of body parts. The close-ups of bodies (and also of the nature surrounding the bodies) are definitely one of my favorite parts of the film.

 

Photo credit: Alexa Vachon
 

PLTV: The sound design and music by HYENAZ really compliments the film’s visual elements, both offering space and aiding in emotion. Can you share a little about the recording process and decisions that shaped the sound and the voiceovers?

Mad Kate: Thanks so much! Adrienne and I produce the music together. One of our guiding principles is to work from the fabric of the content itself, meaning that we collect field recordings from location and from the vocal content in order to make the digital synthesizers which then become the sonic forms. Much of the sound is from the music of insect wings or the sounds collected directly from sex—sound made by the body or human vocalizations during sex.

The voice-overs were created through a process that was initiated by Marit and Esther Martin, early on in the process, because they recorded early interviews with myself and Adrienne. This was perfect, since we already work with sound artifacts, we could use these original recordings as points of germination. We chose which parts of the interviews that we wanted to highlight and then re-recorded the original texts in our own voices, as well as having other actors in the film vocalize our words. This was kind of an experiment of body/identity switching that we address in the film. (Can another body carry the words of another person in their mouth?) We also invited new words and thoughts into the voice-over, so that the experiences were mixed up together. The idea is not that all our experiences are the same, but that they are all so unique and diverse. Yet somehow the idea of “queering” (our words, our identities, our bodies) allows space for holding all these unique experiences. At least, that is what I hope for.

Adrienne Teicher: Kate and I work a lot with field recordings, manipulating them in different ways, exploring the possibilities that any given auditory wave form presents. So we used a lot of field recordings that we had gathered over time, and we used sounds recorded on set as if they were field recordings and manipulated them to create the sense of alternate worlds. We wanted the dark room to really feel like another, hidden subterranean dimension.

 

 

PLTV: There’s a great deal of intensity and intimacy displayed in the performances, which conveys trust, and heightens the visceral, corporal realm of the body. How did you cast, and what processes went into creating a safe space for the performers?

Mad Kate: I felt like the team as a whole was part of an existing network and a community which felt really safe to me. At that time the queer porn community felt really small and familiar. My experience as a performer was one of being held. But I know that Marit and EM, Paulita [Pappel] and Liz [Rosenfeld], and others, all worked together to make this seem effortless and they can probably speak more to this.

Marit Östberg: For me, intimacy is one of the most important components of the film. It all started with this — Kate and Adrienne wanting to portray their bodily and spiritual connection. Their trust in me and Ester Martin (the team behind the camera as main directors and DoP) is definitely a foundation for the film. On top of this, we were lucky to work with so many other fantastic performers who chose to trust us. It wasn’t easy all the time. Film shoots always contain components of stress, such as technical failures and outdoor scenes dependent on weather, and other things that can happen when sex is performed in public spaces. It was the first time Ester Martin and I worked together behind the camera and we had to get to know each other and understand how to communicate and make decisions on set. But I think we found our flow eventually. I can’t thank the performers enough for their patience and what they gave this film. It is huge and breathtaking to receive trust and so much beauty from performers.

 

 

PLTV: Locations also bring symbolism to the sexual experience. Ranging from city highways, to forests/fields, to dimly lit darkrooms. How were these locations selected and what meanings did they bring to the performers who occupied them.

Mad Kate: I think that outdoor sex and the mimesis of cruising plays a large role in my sexuality. I say mimesis of cruising because I haven’t often felt like I was welcome or safe to go solo as a cunt-bodied person into most cruising spaces —- either outdoors or in darkrooms. Therefore all my outdoor sex experiences have been with partners I trust, sometimes taking space in cruising zones together as a means of having proximity to the fantasy of anonymity.

I also think that part of my personal definition of queering sex includes a multiplicity of location. The body and bodies that interact together in different combinations mirror the way(s) that the bodies interact with a multiplicity of spaces and environments, creating difference in the experience from summer field to winter forest, from the plastic vinyl of the darkroom to black asphalt of a highway shoulder. I was hoping that this could be not only portrayed on film but felt physically by the performers. For me it created a vast difference in terms of how I had sex and experienced the sexual body in combination with other bodies in each of these scenes, so, like our genders, each scene is unique.

Adrienne Teicher: A lot of these spaces are connected to memories and experiences that Kate and I had shared. The city highway was a real fuck on an interstate somewhere between the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas. The fields were inspired by psychedelic experiences we had. And the darkroom was because we had explored the extent to which it would be possible for us as women to have sex in a space that is normally coded for cis-men only.

The highway fuck is an interesting one, from a sound design perspective. It was actually in a really gentle, silent forest and the sense of the highway comes from the field recording of a busy street that interlaced into the scene, as well as the intensity of Liz and Jared’s encounter.

 

Photo credit: Alexa Vachon
 

PLTV: Can you answer: What does it mean to actively (un)learn what we might assume about another body’s sex, gender, and desire? How has working on INSTINCT asked / answered this for you?

Mad Kate: Learning, or rather equally, unlearning, is about process and dialogue. So there is this dialogue that occurs between practicing sex, negotiating, reflecting, writing about, and making art about—a set or series of experiences. In this case I mean that unlearning the body, as a visual form, is about understanding how to converse and learn from others about what they need and how they want to be seen.

Making a movie about this was an interesting practice because on the one hand it helped me to synthesize real-world experience (including the real-world experience that was the shooting of the film itself) and on the other hand, it forced a non-visual idea into the visual realm. This was a challenge, in fact it was one of the biggest challenges for me. Queer is so much in the mind, how do you put it into a visual medium? The act of trying to convey that, while watching the bodies on screen, and interacting with the sonic archives of interviews that had worn and twisted through time and were also remnants of former selves, and growing older and more knowledgeable of myself, my body and others’ bodies… this was all part of the process of the unlearning. This is also why making a film over a period of time is interesting, because you can’t help but have new ideas enter and try to make space inside the film. It is also and always will be a beautiful failure to encapsulate everything that has been learned or unlearned.

Ester Martin Bergsmark: For me, it’s somewhere about love, that is, love as something non-judgmental and present, that beyond fixations, there is a sensitive heat and desire that changes you, I have tried as a photographer to really meet these bodies as non-judgmentally as I could, (which on one level is impossible), but trying to see each other again and really be curious and amazed is important, that’s what makes it queer, not knowing what will happen but being open to each other. In a consensus.

And when we see other images, the way we look changes and expands. So for me being a cinematographer really is about transforming my gaze, and sharing that process.

 

Photo credit: Alexa Vachon
 

PLTV: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the film, your experiences creating it, or aspirations for it now that it is released?

Mad Kate: I just want to thank the team, especially the core editors, for sticking through the long process, through all the challenges and changes and still stayed with it until the end. Thank you to all of you!

Adrienne Teicher: I hope the film will be part of a long conversation on screen, and that it’s possible to stage an intervention in the cinematic gaze through the choices we make as filmmakers.
 


 
Thank you to the collaborators for contributing so thoughtfully to this interview. Find INSTINCT now streaming on PinkLabel.TV.

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