Separating the art
from the artist

by Digby Houghton

(Love & Fascism in the 21st Century, 2018, 74 mins, dir: Carmen-Sibha Keiso)

In my head I picture a society, where, after the event of an opening, all the theoreticians head to the bar to deliberate; and all the artists retreat to their studios and talk over wine. The art world and the theoreticians should always be separated, some say. But this is precisely the dilemma to encounter with Carmen-Sibha Keiso since I met her. I’m so involved with her personal life that it’s hard for me to separate the art from the artist as a good critic should – so please forgive me if this piece is too intimate.

Keiso is an archivist. Not just as a job, but her artistic practice embodies processes of archiving. Keiso contributes to the vivid history of the essay film from both the European canon and closer to home (more on that later). Godard’s narrative streak throughout the 1960s was cut short by his shift to radical politics in the wake of the events of May 1968 in Paris. This schism is spelt out in the transition from Weekend (1967) to Le Gai Savoir (1969) and firmly entrenched by his collaborations with Jean-Pierre Gorin as the Dziga Vertov group. Before his death, Godard’s work was a bricolage of sound and text, almost like the director had retreated into his childhood and found the pure joy of image-making. Histoires du Cinema is easily his most prodigious essay work where self-reflexivity reinterprets the cinematic canon. I think this is where the parallels between Keiso and Godard are most poignantly identified. Neither are willing to obey the status quo and both want to make a polemic about what’s next, showing that cinema has the capacity to be radical.

Keiso’s ongoing archiving is complemented by her prolific online presence since 2009 when we first met and she began posting on a tumblr blog by the handle camelzurine. It was here that viewers could find anything she felt was fashionable and a space for posting and reblogging what captured her eye. I would often gravitate towards that space when I lacked inspiration. She would often post mundane photographs like stacked milk crates or spray-painted lines cast by construction workers. At its peak in 2013 she developed an almighty obsession with the tone and mood of beige. It underpinned her dress code and in a metaphysical sense her very being; the simplicity of the colour complemented Keiso’s lifestyle. So in 2015, in our first year at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), Carmen curated a first year sculpture and spatial practice show, alongside classmates, titled The Beige Show, to reflect her infatuation of the colour. I still vividly recall a pile of beige clothes strewn across the floor of the VCA’s student gallery representing the mass accumulation of clothes. These same colours and clothing haunt Love & Fascism in the 21st Century in every frame; from the monotone colour palette to the bland note pads and dull blue jackets and jeans, it is inescapable.

The earliest example I can recall of Keiso’s adoration for archiving consisted of iconic albums of tagged photos of friends that she would share on Facebook sporadically. Her role as an archivist started as soon as I met her as she would film and photograph everything us and our friends would do. Today, Instagram and social media have colonised our subconscious, but Keiso continues to exert herself as a media archivist – she has always captured videos and photos of the mundane and the captivating. This draws parallels between her work and what Thomas Elsaesser labels as a ‘Media Archaeology’; the process of memory through the influx of digital media suggesting a reinvigoration of the past considering the current state of media. There is an anecdote, spoken mid-way through the film, where Camille (the narrator) reflecting on her iPhone 3G states that “identity politics have become an art school cliche…and that was seven years ago.” This fusion of image and narration heralds a reflection tinged with nostalgia for earlier communications and internet media.

Keiso’s graduating Bachelors work included a large sculpture of a clipboard. It was a comment on bureaucracy – most of her work is.  As she leant towards theatre, in 2019 she would simulate the busy commercial district of places like Collins
Street in a laneway bordered between an aged care home and a gym in Clifton Hill called Five Ways. In fact, I feature, in a brief cameo, strolling past Jyoee Hughes as he repeatedly belts the line “there are more than five ways to love you” in different vocal abilities, almost to the point of fatigue-inducing levels for the audience. The humour of 9 to 5 culture captivated Keiso early on but Love & Fascism in the 21st Century draws upon the aesthetic of bureaucracy to inform the film’s costume and stage design.

Keiso left in December of that year to study theatre directing at HB Studios in Manhattan, a few months before a global pandemic was declared and her financial security became ever more precarious. It was here that she forged ties with the experimental composer and filmmaker Phill Niblock. Niblock needed Keiso’s help archiving his life’s work as he was at a ripe age. When Keiso returned to Melbourne a year later she would show me funny videos of Niblock’s day-to-day life in the studio and jetting around on his electric wheelchair. 

Upon Keiso’s return she was so deflated that one of her first solo shows at the now defunct ARI called Meow (in West Melbourne), called Me diations, featured 15 delicately framed photographs of her time incarcerated in Sydney’s Sheraton Grand. The photographs, mounted on aluminium composite panelling and cropped into the frame, were taken on her iPhone over the course of her fourteen-day quarantine and highlight the absurd possibility of the existence of a limbo in the modern world. This is the same liminal tension that binds the narrators of Love & Fascism in the 21st Century (Camille Filippi and Matthew Griffiths). Are they lovers? Do they know each other? Or are they components of a dialectic assisting the audience to grapple with the onscreen subject matter?

Keiso always used the word malaise – she’s a bit like me. She fixates on words and is obsessed by them for indefinite periods of time. She was so obsessed with the word she devoted her honours exegesis to a concept she coined “the millennial malaise”; a sort of jarring aesthetic that our generation had inherited. Keiso, in her honours exegesis, describes the malaise as “being the psycho-socio-cultural condition that arises from existing within a particular strata of advanced capitalism.” Furthermore, “the neo-liberal economic system which feeds capitalist governance, sustained through an activation of the institution” continues to manifest this state of mind. It’s no wonder this malaise feeds the self-reflexive interplay between narrator and the action; we frequently watch as directions are cast succinctly over the image of actors or placeholders moving within the film. 

Nowhere was the idolisation of America more prominent than for the directors who comprised the French New Wave. For Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock were considered as important as Da Vinci and the great Renaissance artists. When Godard made his 1964 film Bande à part he asked the main actors Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey to rehearse the Madison dance each night – a sort of American jig consisting of clicking one’s fingers and bouncing up and down in a choreographed line. This was to prepare the actors for a key scene that takes place in a cafe before the trio break into Odile’s (Anna Karina) aunt’s home. Keiso’s gaze of America is far from one of idolisation. Keiso borrows from this dance routine throughout the film as students jiggle in front of the line of yellow tape in the university’s photo studio. However, the incessant criticisms and the cries against the imperialist agenda where her home countries (Syria and Lebanon) are continually bombed by the United Kingdom, USA, and Israel recontextualises this romanticised adoration of France and America making it resolutely critical.

Essay, deriving from the French essayer, means “to try”. For in an essay, one tries to explain or convey some understanding or knowledge of a topic. The essay film has a long and rich history in the cinematic canon. When I watch Keiso’s movie I think of Australia’s fertile history of the medium: Jeni Thornley (whose Memory Film myself and Carmen watched together at MIFF last year), Peter Tammer, and the rich work of directors like Ross Gibson who question notions of Australian identity using postcolonial frameworks (Camera Natura). Keiso picks the most politically rife scene as a backdrop for her film: the art school. Students stand around looking glum and bored as they liaise with one another in dull mid-toned clothing. This is a reappraisal of the once fashionable normcore style, torn denim jeans and simple runners with monochromatic tops and jumpers. 

Keiso once fell in love online, like me. She met her trans-pacific lover on tumblr; I met my girlfriend on the film logging app Letterboxd – maybe we’re more alike than I thought? He lives in Missouri, but Keiso first met him in the flesh in 2019 when the world went belly up and she decided to leave New York City. They drove to Los Angeles together and along the way Keiso documented everything she saw like an Aussie emulation of the work of James Benning, rock formations glide and glisten past the window of the car and broad meadows shimmer in the distance. This work would culminate in a collaborative audio-visual work (with composer Lawrence English) titled
PN88: Lassitude that screened at NGVA as part of Melbourne Now. Her time spent in New York City also culminated in a video artwork titled Street Corner, featuring the drone guitar of Bonnie Mercer and a distraught man performing on the street, shot through a window and from a fire escape, as part of a series of films Liquid Architecture curated with ACMI in 2022. 

Keiso’s French inflection, bestowed upon her by her Lebanese mother, is unavoidably apparent in Love & Fascism in the 21st Century. The thick French accent of both narrators reminds the audience of imperialism. “Je t’aime je t’adore plus que l’or” (I love you / I adore you / more than gold). Keiso’s mum would recite the phrase ecstatically to her when she was growing up. This repeated use of French signals the master, whilst allowing Keiso to reassert her autonomy in a new way as Matthew naively speaks the phrase in broken French. We should cherish stories from home and Keiso’s art reminds me why culture is so important to curb the ever-incessant tide of a wider cultural malaise.

Love & Fascism in the 21st Century screens on Tuesday, May 14, 2024, in Melbourne, at Thornbury Picture House, as part of the Unknown Pleasures series. Book tickets here.


Digby Houghton is a critic, screenwriter and filmmaker from Melbourne who is interested in the intersection between film and history.

Published May 9, 2024. © Digby Houghton, May 2024