Filmmaker and artist Michelle Sander gives insight into her latest film, opens up about life with PTSD, and talks about her new art book.
A: Creating experiences is what holds my focus these days. This idea of the cross-section of a multitude of layers is at the heart of how all my work is expressed. Each experience is crafted with all players in mind: the art, the participant, the watcher, the one watching the watcher, and even the one who hears about the experience from any one of the other players.
In my latest film, Lost Sock Collection, my aim was to create a multi-sensory experience steeped in loss on every level and told through the lens of time. Loss takes so many forms when it collides with time. The loss of a loved one is grief, for example; the loss of an item or relationship is missing; the loss of childhood is aging and often results in nostalgia, and so on.
Home for me is creating immersive experiences that play with the linear movement of time. My performance art is movement heavy. I think dance is certainly about the movement itself and not about getting to the end. In this way, it’s freed from time. It can have this ineffable, outside-of-time quality. Poetry–good poetry–to me is also transcendental, timeless. Film can be layered and crafted this way as well. I approach all my work with these collapsing distinctions.
I feel a strong sense of responsibility to the art in all its forms. Like a chaperone, or a guide. I feel that I’m responsible for introducing the world to whatever the art may be in the best way for it. The pioneering poetry filmmaker Margaret Tait’s work has been described this way: "it is like visiting a friend’s flat, but with the gaze directed by the inhabitant herself," which gives me a great deal of reassurance in my own filmmaking and artistic approaches.
A: The work grows to take all the space in the room if I let it. Project selection is usually organic. Some projects I’ve started ages ago, but they’ve hit a snag, so I must work on other things for the time being. I’m thinking about this giant bedsheet project I’m working on called Unspeakable. I’ve got all the sheets designed, but my embroiderers keep falling through.
Because I have PTSD, my thoughts are saturated with ideas that aren’t under my control. When I used to meditate, before everything happened, I used to think all my thoughts were always under my control. They aren’t. At least, they aren’t anymore. So now my projects have to be more strategically selected than they once were. I started working on illustrating my handwritten book Draft Letters to a Certain Oceanographer precisely because I needed to stop myself focusing on the events surrounding my assaults. About a quarter of the way through illustrating that, however, I noticed a small space open up in my mind. It was Saint Agatha Mother Redeemer.
I knew STMR would open up like a practice. It is similar to how improvisational dance can become a skill. I knew if I started working on it, it would make itself known to me, like uncovering the rest of a dinosaur skeleton or ancient ruin after the initial discovery.
My films are this way as well. I use a found footage approach. I take all the footage myself, but I don’t storyboard. There’s this brilliant Swedish filmmaker Nathalie Djurberg. She makes clay animation art films, among other things. She talks about how the interesting aspect for her is discovering what the characters will do next. She doesn’t storyboard or plan her shots. I try to keep a similar amount of faith and trust that what I’m looking for will be there. And because I filmed it, I’m there in every moment. It’s the dance of the filming, the secret that I am taking you to see what I see. It’s unique and intimate.
I’m also quite obsessed with time and how time changes perspectives and ages things and quite often moves without relation to experience. This is why many things I film are sped up or slowed. I think it’s a more accurate portrayal of reality. It is how I feel when I read great works of poetry. It is how I feel when I try to remember my friend’s beautiful laugh or pull up memories of running through the garden with my father. It feels like yesterday || it feels like ancient history || it feels like now.
I try to have faith in the timing of it all. It is one of the few gifts of grace I feel okay indulging in.
I started working on a totally unrelated project to try and focus my mind away from the intrusive memories, thoughts, flashbacks, etc. It’s a book I wrote out all by hand. I wanted to find a watercolor artist to collaborate with, but I couldn’t find anyone, so I set about creating the illustrations myself. About 120 pages in, I realized this book Draft Letters to a Certain Oceanographer was going to be about 500 pages long.
But it taught me a lot about my style and what I liked and disliked about this layering approach I take. It was at this point that I knew it was time to create STMR. I was compelled to create it. I worked as much as I possibly could, trying my best to focus on the good this book might do and not on everything coming up. It doesn’t work that way, but I tried as hard as I could to focus on the good and the conversations and questions it might raise.
Saint Agatha Mother Redeemer is the non-triggering name for the book I’d originally named Sexts to My Rapists. I will usually just call it STMR. Ideally, STMR would be a biodigital experience. If I had unlimited funds, it would be a fully immersive PTSD experience.
One of the things about PTSD is that it’s ubiquitous and insatiable. You can’t take a break from it. It’s there when I’m awake, and it’s even there when I’m attempting to sleep. That’s the hyper-vigilance aspect. My brain shut down during my first assault. It thought I was going to die, so it just *slow beep fading* turned off. And then I was assaulted again. Entirely different circumstances in many ways, but these traumas have the same effect. Because of the PTSD the perpetrators feel... nearby and ever present. I can't rid myself of them. I have tricks to remind myself what's in the past versus the present, but PTSD is super sneaky. It finds a way back in eventually.
Because I couldn’t create an app or a full PTSD experiential AR museum (yet!), I created this book. It’s a good place to start and what’s great about having something physical is you can throw it across the room if you like, or burn it. You can close a book, and reopen it when you are ready. If this were an app or a film or some other AR experiential art, I’d feel responsible for the viewer being unable to escape. That’s how I feel right now, and I’m not ready to put that terrible burden on anyone else at this point.
A: I wanted this book to be problematic. I wanted readers to want to look and to want to look away. With the title alone I wanted to get potential readers to get curious. I wanted people to want to pick up my book and simultaneously be repulsed by it. Who would send sexts to their rapists and WHY? I wanted it to feel dangerous, very much a reflection of how I felt||feel in the world. The book had to be illustrated because I did lose so much of the verbal expression around it.
In therapy, we talk a lot about how what happened isn’t my fault, but–at first, especially–I felt to blame. I’m not, obviously, no victim is to blame. But guilt and grieving go hand in hand, and this is when I figured out what was happening in my thinking; I was grieving for the version of myself that I no longer was. I was grieving for the me who I no longer am. She’s gone. Maybe just for now, maybe forever.
And also, maybe because my brain shut down in the way it did or maybe because PTSD often has comorbidities like depression, my life began to slip away. My friendships started giving way. I couldn’t hold space for anyone else’s problems or life. I was terrified of being triggered. I have OCD around certain parts of things, so I simply couldn’t speak about some of it. My life began to fade into the distance, and I was so gutted that no one else seemed to notice. PTSD isolates people in this way. It felt important to tell the story of my death, and I wanted to tell the story of my new life after death.
I wanted readers to begin to fathom the internal conflict in this dichotomy of feeling that I’d died, but was–am–still living. The duality in knowing that my rapists are far from me, but feeling like they are always around the next corner. This contradictory knowing versus feeling is a torturous existence. I wanted the art to express how accessible I feel. It feels like the perpetrators have unlimited access to me. I wanted to explore this feeling.
I wanted to confound the ideas that surround rape as well. Often, people think rape is about sexiness or desire–what was she wearing?–when rape is about power. I wanted to explore that. I wanted people to have to think that idea through completely. I wanted people to be confronted with that.
I think it’s a rather untraditional graphic novel, more along the lines of Richard McGuire’s brilliantly crafted graphic novel Here. It’s an artbook to me because it’s a designed analog stand-in experience for the digital space of text messaging. I have a background in user experience design, and UI design, and it shows through in this work. As the reader moves deeper into the book, they are getting to see me taking self-portraits through various screens, devices, and mediums.
The self-portraiture is incredibly intimate, but it’s also possible that the reader is viewing my self-portrait on a device that’s not mine. Disturbing as that might be to conceptualize. The duality is intentional, and it is meant to be a devastating realization. It’s an allegory to my own experience. Your mind says: you’re safe; your body says: oh no you’re not. It mimics the experience I have each day living||battling PTSD.
A: My therapist likes to remind me that I can’t think my way out of all this. (As much as I might try!) I created Saint Agatha as a space very much apart from what happened. It is a finite space that I was able to construct for the purpose of exploring precisely what didn’t happen. Rape isn’t about sexiness. It’s not about sensuality or sexual desire at its heart. Rape and sexual assault are about power and control. After the assaults, these ideas had to be relearned and embodied. Saint Agatha lets me explore what it might be like to take my power back if only inside its covers and among its 200 pages.
Inside the covers of Saint Agatha, I am able to explore difficult questions. If it feels like the perpetrators have unlimited access, what would it be like if I were to have control over that instead? If I died–or a part of me died–as it feels to me, then how do I mourn for her? What prayer can I say over my own bones? The bones that once held up a boundless woman, who was quick to laugh, to hug, to explore, to welcome. Must I travel to the Sea of Galilee to create my own miracle? How do you perform a baptism for the dead?
I don’t know any of the answers to these–maybe I never will–but this is the space Saint Agatha allows me to explore.
Does anyone get a book deal these days? My life with PTSD is an exercise in keeping my head above water. I don’t think I’d have the capacity to face the rejection that would come from submitting to publishers. And I like the Kickstarter approach. Let’s get everyone on board. And hey, if no one wants to buy this book, I’d rather save the trees.
A: I was watching an interview with the incredible writer Roxane Gay recently. I watched as the journalist conducting the interview became noticeably uncomfortable and then asked a tough question about her assault as a young teen. And maybe on the inside Roxane Gay was not as she seemed on the outside, but she didn’t shift, her voice didn’t tremble, and she answered the question unflinchingly, straightforwardly. It changed my life. Her answering that question with steely resolve expanded my idea of how I imagined I might one day answer a similar question.
I don’t want to forget what happened. I want to be able to choose when I think about it, but not forget. Avoidance is peak PTSD. Even unrelated memories are impacted. Some symptoms are starting to subside, however, like my startle response and some avoidance behaviors are beginning to wane. A few weeks ago I was able to go outside at night, and I saw the stars. It had been so long since I’d been able to go out after dark that I forgot what it was like to stand under the stars. I forgot how miraculous they are, how bright, how they seem to call down to each one of us by name.
My hope is that in time, my world will blossom again. That, if I am very lucky, this death is less permanent and more like a long winter or a hibernation.
Art saves lives. Art’s important. This experience has forced me to stop turning my back on this reality. The future for me is experiential art and digital design work. I’d like to connect with the embroider of my dreams to get my bed sheets stitched for Unspeakable. I’ll use the bed sheets to produce Body of Work, a follow-up book to STMR. It’s about the OCD I’ve experienced around my assaults. How I can’t||couldn’t speak about it for so long.
I’ve also been working on connecting with other filmmakers and folks interested in AR and other immersive storytelling technologies because I would like to turn Saint Agatha into an experience that’s even more engaging than the book. Hopefully, this Kickstarter campaign will bring a new wave of thoughtful artists into my life. It’s hard to know. That’s the thing about art, and the thing about PTSD, and the thing about life really, it’s often hard to see around the corner.
Michelle Sander’s film Lost Sock Collection premieres at the Manchester International Film Festival in March 2019. See an updated list of commissions and screenings here.