“I was not supposed to sing and yet here I am singing!” Céline Gillain on being a product of the culture we live in and seeing depression as a form of resistance

Culled from our last ever print edition, we speak with Brussels-based producer Céline Gillain about everything from her Antinote-released debut LP Bad Woman to being a pure product of the society she lives in.

Photographer Thomas Ost (c)

You’ve just released your debut album, Bad Woman, on Antinote’s sister imprint Drama. How did working with the Paris-based label come about?

I was contacted by Zaltan and PAM from Drama a few months after the release of my EP What Happens If I Open My Mouth on Lexi Disques in June 2017. Zaltan had bought it at Crevettes Records in Brussels and wrote to me asking if there were other works in progress I could send them. I said sure, but the truth is I don’t really do work in progress. So I worked on a new song for days, sent it to them and hoped that they would love it.

The album clearly nods towards pop music sensibilities whilst being firmly rooted in experimental electronic. It’s also peppered with undertones of spoken word and even sees your singing on it. Something that takes quite a lot of guts today, especially for someone with a professed fear of performing for audiences. How would you describe the record, and can you talk to me about its recording process?

I feel this sort of urgency to connect and to share ideas, as if time is short and I have nothing to lose. I don’t think music can solve anything but it’s accessible to everyone and creates meaning, and making music and sharing it makes me feel like I belong. It’s important to me to be very direct and to have a clear message, but I also want to preserve a form of contradiction, to acknowledge complexity. With Bad Woman, I wanted to give the impression that everything is under control and yet could go wrong at any minute—like the human psyche or the brain of a computer, always on the brink of collapse. I read a lot, take notes and make lists. I consume pop culture in a wide and bulimic way. I’m fascinated by advertisements and capitalist propaganda, and obsessed with the American entertainment industry, in particular with the way it creates heroes and success stories. Once I start experimenting and recording, after all this bingeing, a whole lot of ideas are already in place. My workspace is quite compact and minimal: all I have is my voice—which I realised is an infinite source of experimentation—a microphone, a MIDI keyboard and my computer—also a source of infinite possibilities. Ever since I started making music, the DAWs have literally been blowing my mind non-stop: it’s so intelligent, instinctive and autonomous, it’s an entity with which I’ve been building a relationship and there’s no way I’ll ever be able to fully control it: I’m definitely not its master. As crazy as it may sound, it’s a collaboration based on trust and sometimes I feel like I’m not the one in charge.

Can you also talk to us about the LP’s cover art? What were your intentions with it?

It’s inspired by pop stars’ past and present album covers where the face of the singer is a story we are sold. I often wonder, “What story are they trying to sell us and why would we buy it?” For example, when Lady Gaga released her album Joanne in 2016 I was kind of surprised how after years of exploiting the heretic female freak image, suddenly all they were trying to say was, “I’m just a regular American girl with a pink cow-boy hat, a nose job and a guitar.” Suddenly it wasn’t profitable anymore to be a freak! I was very disappointed. The cover also refers to the use of photo retouching. It’s a kind of “retouching gone wrong”. I personally like to use the retouching tool to remodel myself, to kind of camouflage and hide the real me—or simply to protect it perhaps. It’s like a veil or contour cosmetics. Also, editing my face feels a lot like painting self-portraits. Doing so, I become my own muse and not someone else’s. Having full control of my image is important to me. I allow myself to become the freak that I am, but also to become a pure product of the culture we live in. Photo retouching is mostly used on (and by) women, and there’s no doubt it feeds our self-hatred. According to Facetune or Instagram filters, a perfect face would be one with big eyes, swollen lips, white teeth, a small nose, smooth skin, no pimples, no wrinkles. Younger, purer, sexier. Innocent like a baby yet overly sexualised—which is very fucked up when you think about it. It’s like a pornographic version of Bambi.

You studied painting at La Cambre although, here in Brussels, are really best known as a performing artist who touches upon subjects with global resonance, but from a personal point of view. Where do you draw your source material from and what would you say shapes your performances?

For many years I was stuck in the past or sort of fantasised versions of myself, in a kind of “dormant state.” Then one day I woke up—and it felt really awful for a while. Suddenly the present was so sharp, so full of potential it made my head spin. But I thought that maybe I could use this vertigo, so I started investigating the present through performances. A performance is a shared moment in the here and now, a great opportunity to say something about the situation we collectively find ourselves in at this moment. My performances are contextual. I believe context is everything: the place where the performance is going to happen, the technical conditions, the kind of audience it’s aimed at. It readily provides a meaningful framework and I feel like I just have to grab pieces of it and fit them together, like the clues of an investigation. I also want to question the position I occupy as a performer; as the one all eyes are laid on, the one who gets to be heard for a short period of time. It’s certainly flattering to be the center of attention but it’s also a big responsibility, a privilege I need to use and handle with care.

Self-deprecation and tongue-in-cheek humour seem central to your practice. For instance, you performed at Independent art fair yet used the performances, in part, to deride the very codes such affairs are based on. I found it at times to be rather confrontational, and wanted to know if you agreed with this depiction and why you find it tempting to, as they say, “stick it to the man”?

I consider myself a pessimist, but I’m still idealist enough to think that as a citizen and artist I have to question authority and challenge mainstream ideological conformism of any kind. I feel I have a responsibility to educate myself and overcome a certain desire for resignation and passivity. There’s this voice in my head systematically depreciating everything I do, and the bigger the achievement the louder the voice. For example, right now as I’m answering these questions, the voice is saying, “Who do you think you are, asserting all these smart ideas you pretentious cunt?”

But self-deprecation is a double-edged sword: both destructive and constructive. I see depression as a form of resistance towards a system where everyone is supposed to be productive and happy and positive, in other words where everyone should be a fulfilled consumer. Being depressed is like saying, “Something’s deeply wrong here and we need to make a change.” And so I also believe in the healing power of self-derision. I’m not promoting despair, I just really think we need to be more realistic towards ourselves here in the West and that we need to deal with our guilt once and for all. Capitalism being what it is, I don’t know how it’s possible for an artist today to not be in some kind of resistance to it. Let’s face it, though it’s full of well-intentioned people, the art market is like the icing on the cake of a profoundly unfair economy, perpetuating and promoting a system of values always in favour of the wealthiest. I identify a lot with the dynamic of humour as nonviolent resistance. My tactic is to try to confront those ideas from within in a non-adversarial manner, using entertaining strategies to make the pill easier to swallow.

Having full control of my image is important to me. I allow myself to become the freak that I am, but also to become a pure product of the culture we live in.

For someone who’s been very vocal about her fears of performing in front of an audience, you seem to have come full circle, commanding quite the confidence on stage but, also, actually seeming to enjoy it. How did you overcome these initial fears?

I’m scared of failure but I’m also terrorised by success. I think I might suffer from imposter syndrome and being a woman certainly doesn’t help. We’re indeed conditioned to think that we cannot succeed without paying some sort of price. Having a voice and using it feels like a transgression, which is why it’s so hard to do it. So, overcoming these fears has become a kind of lifetime personal mission. Realising that I’m not as powerless as I think I am is the best feeling ever. It feels truly heroic when I can prove to myself that I have the ability to change, to push my mental boundaries and reprogramme myself; that there’s no such thing as destiny or genetic disposition or talent (or lack thereof). I was not supposed to sing and yet here I am singing!

Being part of this generation of artists that witnessed the impact of the Internet and digital means of expression on the world first-hand, new media and, more specifically, social media are subjects that seem to greatly inform your practice. At its core, how would you define your artistic and musical narrative?

When I was in my 20s I was intimidated by computers and the whole virtual reality thing. Having been raised in a technology-free environment, I thought I would never be able to use these tools. I always had shitty computers and had to learn how to fix them and crack programmes because I was so broke all the time. Little by little, I started to actually enjoy it. What I find particularly fascinating is that it has created unprecedented ways of learning; of sharing knowledge. Pretty much everything I know about making electronic music was learnt through the Internet. I love that there’s a parallel world where every question can be answered in just a few seconds no matter how nerdy or intimate the question might be. Social media are a great source of cogitation too: the tyranny of positive thinking, the commodification of emotions, how they reveal our insecurities, or how they can be used against oppression, to denounce abuses, as emancipation tools and so on. And with social media; everyone has a story to tell, every life becomes a narrative. In a way, social media continually reinvents storytelling.

I’d like to talk to you about this idea of second lives, or second careers. You originally started off as a painter, having studied at La Cambre, then slowly transitioned towards music. How and why did this shift happen?

I studied drawing at La Cambre and then for about a decade all I did was paint and teach art in secondary schools in Mons and in Brussels. I struggled and felt lonely in my studio, gradually and painfully realising my approach was romantic and out of touch with reality. My stock of paintings was getting bigger and bigger, while I could hardly pay for the rent nor the equipment, and the whole thing became like a burden. Then, in 2010 I attended an exhibition on 70s avant-garde, read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and had a bit of an epiphany. That’s when I got the idea to organise a women-only residency which later became the collective The After Lucy Experiment. We started experimenting with performance and music and after a year or two, I realised that devoting my life to painting just didn’t make sense anymore because I could basically do what I wanted. What struck me the most is that during my five-year course in La Cambre, no one had ever told me I could do what I wanted and the weirdest thing is I had never thought I actually could. It’s like I was expecting someone to give me permission.

You also teach the course on the Sociologie de l’art at Brussels’ La Cambre which I find rather ironic given your strong, often critical, views of the art world and, more specifically, the art market. What exactly is the course about and what do you aim to teach your students?

I reject the hypocrisy of the art market and the elitism of the art world, and am critical towards the way art is taught in many art schools—it’s literally the reason why I teach. I believe in the importance of art and even more so in the importance of public education, there’s no doubt about that. AUTONOMISATION + IMAGINATION is the name of the seminar I teach where I help students prepare their transition to graduate life. The idea is to help them have more control over their life, improve their portfolios and other self-empowerment tools, to inform them about the legal status of artists and the codes of the art scene in the most pragmatic and realistic way possible. The seminar also has a theoretical approach on the matter of “life after school”, aiming to more deeply question the role and place of the artist in today’s society.

In Damien Aresta’s excellent podcast series Amour, Gloire & Chips, you credit The After Lucy Experiment as giving you the impetus but also the legitimacy to start making music. Can you take us back to those days that, as you say in the podcast, once again gave you the right to experiment in music?

Working with a collective taught me a lot about art and about myself. Watching the others work, the discussions we had, the references we shared—the energy and fearlessness were exhilarating. Also we had a lot of fun, drank and smoked a lot, allowed ourselves to be crazy and go beyond the limits of conventionality. We respected each other and were tender with one another. We became a sort of love commando. Suddenly it felt like we didn’t have to put others first—family, boyfriends, children—and I remember thinking, “Wow, so this is what it feels like to be free!” But after a while the group thing can be alienating. Even though we are all women, we couldn’t escape power relations and it became too complicated to work together. After five years we decided it was better to stop before we all die of cirrhosis and hate each other for good. For a woman, blending in a group can be yet another strategy not to be seen or heard. And I wanted to make music on my own terms; I didn’t want to have to compromise anymore. My relationship to music didn’t start with The After Lucy Experiment though. It goes way back. As a kid I played the recorder and also the viola for a while. Later during my teens, I played percussions and experimented with the saxophone for a few years (which was interesting but also kind of awful). Around the age of 20 I became phobic about performing in front of others, I was even scared to play in front of my professor. So I just quit. A few years later I started DJing, playing with loops and samples, and by doing so, little by little I re-educated myself to music.

Relief, your monthly show on The Word Radio, is a hybrid between music selection and spoken word performance which comes across as a very intimate and personal affair. Can you talk to us a little bit about the show, how you go about preparing it and how, if at all, it informs your wider artistic practice?

When you guys first asked me if I’d be interested in having a monthly show on The Word Radio, I had the idea to play my own music and speak my own words, but I quickly realised that it would take me the whole month to prepare. And there’s so much content already out there! Tons of extraordinary past and present music from everywhere, not to mention the lyrics, and people formulating ideas better than I would ever be able to. It’s just unlimited. I want Relief to be a broad and hybrid selection; a sort of endless homage to humanity. And it’s important not to have hierarchies of any sort, to be as free as possible yet also neat and precise. I want to be able to play Pet Shop Boys and baroque music in the same mix without sounding demonstrative. A one-hour mix is like a narrative, a curve. I like to play with that curve and experiment, make waves, create rhythm with cuts and respirations. In other words, I seek to create some relief. And on top of that, I love the double meaning of the word relief.

I’d like to finish off by asking, who are the people instrumental in shaping you as an artist? Can you also recollect certain moments that contributed towards solidifying your narrative?

As a child I played with an ensemble and it was a very foundational experience. It was like a conversation, but better than using words. There was a compilation tape with the label “USA 1980” in my dad’s beige Golf GTI and a Klaus Nomi tape that we listened to every car ride. For my 9th birthday I received a cassette player and started listening to the radio. One day I heard Technotronic and my brain just went boom. I bought the tape and listened to it over and over and over. Another important moment I recall is the first time I heard Annie Lennox sing. My best friend’s dad was a total nerd, owning a computer and CDs before anyone else. The first ever CD I heard was Savage from the Eurythmics and in particular the song Beethoven (I Love to Listen To). I still have the chills today when I hear her sing Along comes the boy and he’s looking for trouble with a girl like that, with a girl like that. Later I discovered Laurie Anderson and became a huge fan—Home of the Brave was an absolute revelation. Ursula K. Le Guin’s science fiction novels blow my mind as well. When I discovered feminist sci-fi literature I felt such a strong connection, I thought, “That’s it! That’s what I’ve been looking for my whole life!” Reading Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity by philosopher Judith Butler was life-changing as well. Grace Jones. Hito Steyerl. Succession (the series). Laurel Halo. Sara Ahmed. Freddie Mercury. Henry Purcell. Alien. Leslie Winer. Jlin. Naomi Klein. Trevor Noah. Doris Norton. Audre Lorde. Stephen King. Joanna Russ. Barbara Ehrenreich. Birds, plants, ants, trees, clouds. To only cite a few.

Céline’s debut album Bad Woman (2018) is out now on Drama. Her monthly show on The Word Radio, Relief, runs Wednesdays from 18h to 19h.