A lot of your work directly invites the viewer to interact or reflect. Can you talk a bit about why you think this type of work is important, and why you continue to challenge the audience?
I'm a multidisciplinary artist currently exploring intersections of gender, survivorship, violence, and the effects of trauma on the body. I make interactive work because I think allowing the viewer to participate passively can reinforce our tendencies towards spectatorship and encourage us to remain distant and disbelieving in response to actual harm. Through my work, I ask folks to to engage with their own discomfort in relatively safe settings, such as theaters and galleries, so that they have more capacity to recognize and response to those feelings in "real world" spaces.
Can you talk about the importance of the audience presence in your work? How is it elevated in this setting versus a solo viewing?
This is a great question. Most of my film work has been screened for multiple people at once. Only Cervical Exam, and now Ritual, have been offered as installations. I'm curious to learn more about which films are more palatable alone and which require audience solidarity.
Some of your work can be hard to watch. What are you challenging, in concern to your body work? What are you asking the audience for and what do you wish they take away from their experience?
I agree that some of my work can be hard to watch. Often though, what's hard to view changes from person to person. For example, Untitled includes footage of me having what I call a DIY gender confirmation surgery- genitals carved into my upper thigh. There's real blood, real cutting. I usually sit onstage during the screenings of this piece and watch the audience experience the film. I have always contextualized my presence as an act of shared responsibility- I witness the audience’s discomfort and share it greatly; I struggle to sit still, I feel exposed and self-conscious, I get sweaty and shaky on stage.
Recently, I received feedback from some folks of color that this piece feels gratuitously violent, especially because I'm a white person watching others experience harm. I am sitting with this response because I am aware of the histories of gendered/genital violence enacted by white folks on people of color as well as the act of being white and passively watching others hurt.
Still, I also think that naming the piece as violent exposes biases often held by cis folks about how trans bodies should or shouldn’t be modified. For me, the piece is a reclaiming of a gratuitously violent aspect about being trans- being studied, particularly by the medical industry, and the daily humiliations and dangers I face when I seek medical care. And for me, the film itself does not depict violence. I am avidly consenting to the cutting and I’m surrounded by other trans folks (as opposed to mostly cisgender nurses and doctors) changing my body in ways that feel powerful, necessary, and accessible.
So I guess I'm hoping to challenge biases in general. My own and others'. Because bias is specific to individuals (and often general populations), the challenge I hope to offer is accountability to those biases. I hope that people examine why they feel uncomfortable viewing something and that they offer criticism with those reasons in mind.
A lot of your work includes the use of your own body. Can you speak to this form of storytelling, and why you choose yourself as the subject?
To me, art often violates consent. I make work about my own abusive relationships, for example, and I violate the consent of perpetrators by not asking them for permission to speak to experiences that we shared. I accept that violation because to not make that work would feel like a silencing of my own voice and in those situations, I prioritize my consent over theirs. In order to mitigate those violations though, I often center my body as a site for exploring my experiences with harm because feels like a way of acknowledging that my experiences may not align with someone else's, and ensuring that my work is grounded in my individual truths and not in universal declarations.
I also hope that by grounding conversations about shame, discomfort, or trauma in my own experiences, viewers are more supported in being able to explore their feelings towards those parts of being. I want to offer vulnerability as I ask for it.
Can you give us some hints about the new work you’ll be screening?
Yes, absolutely. The new piece, working titled Void, is an examination of the losses sustained by leaving an abusive relationship. This piece involves removing, frame by frame, a lover's body from footage of us together. Often, this means removing pieces of myself when we overlap. When this relationship ended, I experienced the loss of this person, of our mutual friends who were unable to support me in naming their behaviors as abusive, of self-esteem and self-trust, and of community spaces out of fear of seeing this ex move through the world unaccountable to their actions. Also, unlike previous break-ups, I felt a lot of shame about the grief I sustained for this former partner, and so the film is also about the gradual subsiding of that shame and acceptance of complex feelings for someone who has hurt me.
Can you speak on the other films in your night (Friday, 6/1)? How do these films from local/ national/ international artists fit with your work?
When Chelsea invited me to curate my evening, she asked if there were any key themes to look out for as she went through the entirety of the submissions. I told her to send films my way that were hard to like/ deeply uncomfortable to view. Overall, I'd say that films I've selected challenge the viewer to engage with bodies in complex ways. I chose the title, Knots, for my evening because the films represent the tangles within which we find ourselves, especially when we avoid parts of ourselves that we hold discomfort and shame around. I also like that Knots sounds like nots, as in have-nots, or cannots. The films in my evening represent bodies and concepts that are not valued in ways that I think they should be.
Sami Pfeffer’s work will be on view on Friday Night, Knots, alongside musician MIEHYK, as well as local, national, and international filmmakers.
All images courtesy of the artist.
Interview written by Chelsea Arden Parker, edited by Sarah Kass.