Becoming Siren engl.
Becoming Siren (September 1940 – May 1941)
An interview between Alexandra Hopf and Julia M. Strauss
Becoming Siren links the cultural history of the Siren with the story of the legendary ‘siren suit’, an overall worn by women in England during World War II. This suit was also worn by the dancers of the eponymous performance group ‘The Sirens’. Performing in bunkers and underground shelters during the Blitzkrieg, they developed a choreography that transformed the state of emergency into a rite of passage. Within this narrative, a space unfurls for a utopian social moment in which gender polarities and class differences dissolve.
Historical texts of animal and human camouflage behaviour, which depict how boundaries between subject and object dissolve, as well as ideas about the cyborg inspired by science theorist Donna Haraway are taken up in essays and poetic reflections. The anthology jumps back and forth in terms of time and content; the resulting gaps create spaces for new readings. The historical source material and the reconstructed scene imagery of the dance not only make visible how multifaceted the mythological Siren is, but also how she has empowered herself after centuries of her myth being appropriated.
Julia M. Strauss (JMS): In your text ‘Gimme Shelter’ you retrace the events of the London war years (1940/41). Your focus here is on the emergency shelters in the shafts of the London Underground during the German air raids, the siren suit and the dance group ‘The Sirens’ and their spectacular underground performances. In doing so, you interweave several time levels into your narration, which causes a kind of materiality to emerge. To what extent do you also understand your artistic practice in curatorial terms?
Alexandra Hopf (AH): Becoming Siren is an exhibition/retrospective in the form of a book, and the book concerns the reconstruction of a dance. The story of the siren suit, which evolved from the overalls (worn by women in the factories), and the mythology of the siren, a being that is both animal and human, are both embedded in the historical scenario of the London Blitz. Both narratives are interwoven in images and texts from literature and pop culture as well as with contemporary contributions, whereby fact and fiction begin to permeate one another. The introduction, which outlines the historical background, transitions over the course of the narration into an account of the legendary, underground performance by the dance group ‘The Sirens’. The dancers’ movements are described as if they were computer animations that constantly reassemble during the performance, creating hybrid, fragmented body images. This impression is reinforced by the fabric of the siren Suit, which is digitally printed with the motif of a folded paper and additionally dyed with light and dark segments. Its folding runs through the entire illusionistically shaded and optically fragmented body of the suit. These motifs are also reflected in the form and content of the book: as mimesis, fluidity of identities, parallelism of narratives, and non-linearity of history.
JMS: Typeface, image and writing are clearly important components in Becoming Siren. How are visuality and process related in your discourse, and how crucial is the directed gaze?
AH: It was important to me that typography and image are considered equally, i.e., that typography can also be seen as an image. For example, narratives are placed side by side; footnotes and image descriptions become small autonomous texts, turning the layout into an overall composition. The fonts of the historical source texts were reconstructed and each of the images were replaced. For other text contributions, a font program was used to transform the selected serif font into grotesque font and vice versa. This results in hybrid fonts whose transitions are, however, hardly perceptible. The photographs reconstructing the dance are composed of fragments of a single person, who even embodies the whole ensemble in some of the images. No state is static: everything transforms and interlocks.
JMS: Your historical analysis of the siren suit points out that the garment is genderless and classless; that it is, politically speaking, entirely democratic. Utility clothing usually has a non-binary aesthetic, and the current zeitgeist is (once again) for that which is unisex or genderless. To what extent is the siren theme significant in contemporary fashion discourse?
AH: I have been dealing with the overall as a revenant of the modern era for some time now. The Russian avant-garde revolutionised art: design, fashion, architecture and theatre all participated in the political discourse back then (until Stalinism). A few years ago, I became interested in an illustration showing Alexander Rodchenko in his overalls, which I reconstructed from primed canvas for an exhibition. It was the initial spark for all my further research.
The siren suit was designed, produced and worn by women. At around the same time, Winston Churchill appropriated it—as a mark of solidarity with the population. Hence the suit, in a pinstripe version specially tailored for him, had a clear political message. Fashion has been reflecting the decampment of traditional gender attributions since the 1920s. The new thing is that current fashions are posted on today’s social networks in a matter of seconds. Nevertheless, we will never be able to grasp the current zeitgeist, it will always elude us. Therefore, the contemporary nature of the siren suit can only be captured at this moment, viewed from a distance (to its historical time).
JMS: Authors Silke Ballath and Rosanna McNamara explore Haraway’s cyborg concept and relate it to the Sirens. How do you read Donna Haraway’s essay ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1983) in light of your extensive studies?
AH: I also read ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ as primarily artistic manifesto that was ahead of its time. In it, Haraway breaks down scientific, socio-political and gender-political attributions and categories and draws a vision of a society in which the boundaries between human/animal/organism and machine are becoming increasingly permeable. The cyborg is a metaphor for the creation of comprehensive and, above all, interrelated identities.
In her song, the siren lures sailors to the island with her omniscience (=omnipotence). The male (omnipotence) fantasies projected onto her and her myth over centuries are mirrors of their times. The cyborg analogy thematised in the book finally opens up space for new potentials for the Siren, especially in terms of her self-empowerment.
JMS: Your publication features texts by Carlos Dyer and Roger Caillois. Can you tell me more about working with these authors and the context in which you see or understand them (and their reflections) in regards to your work?
AH: The text by the French sociologist and philosopher Roger Caillois ‘Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia’ appeared in 1935 in the surrealist art magazine Minotaure. It concerns the mimicry of certain insects, which camouflage themselves so well and merge with their environment that they are ultimately devoured. Caillois claims that this is therefore not a benefit of nature, but a dangerous luxury. But by endowing the insect with the capacity of imagination to dissolve boundaries between itself and its environment, Caillois creates an analogy to human consciousness. He thus opens the field for a more comprehensive relationship between humans/animals and their environment.
Carlos Dyer was an artist who wrote the essay ‘The Role of the Artist in Camouflage’ for the British propaganda exhibition Britain at War at MoMA (1941). It describes artistic techniques for camouflaging people and objects for purposes of war. Alongside other exhibits, the exhibition showed illustrations depicting the invisibility of objects and their surroundings.
Both authors consider the act of mimesis to be a form of artistic expression, albeit in different ways. I have appropriated both texts by swapping their illustrations, but leaving their subtitles in the original, creating a surrealistic shift of meaning similar to the contributions of the magazine Minotaure.
JMS: The sound of the sirens’ singing or the content of what they told has not been handed down. Therefore, Rosanna McNamara fictionalises a siren who reveals a story of loss and grief in her piece ‘In Living Memory’ . She embeds these words into song lyric quotes from Aaliyah’s ‘I Miss You’. What background music would you choose to give voice to Sirens? And: What role do tonality and rhythm play in the production of your siren suits?
AH: I am thinking more of a lullaby, ushering in the transformation from waking to a sleeping state, like at the end of the story ‘Gimme Shelter’. The events of a dream follow a different dramaturgy and logic and have their own temporality, which the dreamer sets, but to which he is exposed at the same time; the tonality, like that of the dream, takes place in progressions. Dreamer and dream slowly emerge and merge like waves.
Julia M. Strauss is a curatorial assistant at the Berlinische Galerie and is currently working on the exhibition Images in Fashion – Clothing in Art. Photography, Fine Arts, and Fashion since 1900, which will be showing from 11 February to 30 May 2022. Alexandra Hopf will be showing various works as a participant in the show.