Candice Breitz, The Rehearsal, 2012, six-channel video installation, color, sound.

Candice Breitz is an artist whose practice delves into the nature of identity production through the circuits of mass media. Here she discusses her video trilogy The Woods, which comprises The Audition, The Rehearsal, and The Interview, works that were shot respectively in Los Angeles, Mumbai, and Lagos in 2012. They are on view in “Candice Breitz: The Character” until March 11, 2013 at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne.

I HOPED THAT THE WOODS, as a title, might evoke the fictional space of fairy tales and folklore, a space in which morals and norms are passed on to children via entertaining stories. But the title also quite literally takes what the three film industries that were my point of focus—Hollywood, Bollywood, and Nollywood—nominally have in common, to hold the three works together as a trilogy. The three chapters in the trilogy all incorporate child actors or actors who are known for performing childhood.

When I came up with the first tentative concept for the trilogy in 2008, I didn’t know exactly where I was headed. I was at the end of a very isolated editing process, having just completed Him + Her, a found-footage installation that kept me in editing quarantine for three years. Having spent more than a decade thinking about the affective resonance and social impact of mass entertainment—predominantly of the American variety—I was a little Hollywooded out. I was feeling fatigued by the standard blockbuster fare of the Western mainstream that had been my point of departure for quite some time, but also a little bored with my own circulation—as an artist traveling to install exhibitions or shoot new work—between a variety of predictable art contexts.

Along with considering new contexts, I was specifically interested in working with children. Children are always understudies in a sense, observing and aping adults—and the culture of adults—to model themselves into social beings. I’m interested in what might be understood, for example, about the mechanics of walking when you watch a young child put on a parent’s shoes and stumble across the room, or about the theatricality of self-presentation when you watch a young child apply makeup in imitation of an adult, or about the structure of language when you listen to a young child repeating phrases or sentences borrowed from an adult or older sibling: the thousands of tiny acts of mimicry that accumulate into selfhood.

In the case of The Audition and The Rehearsal, the idea was to let kids try on the kinds of voices and roles that would usually belong to adults. The fact that the kids are not always able to smoothly pull off the adult opinions that they parrot, not always able to convincingly master the nuances of a particular phrase or line, creates an opportunity, I think, to observe the labor that is involved in playing a role, the grinding of gears that occurs as an actor turns on for the camera, assuming a different posture or gaze to create a character, attempting to turn off his or her self. I wanted to capture these mechanics, the moments in which actors shift into and fall out of character, points of tension between the staged naturalism of a convincingly portrayed character and the supposed naturalism of the self that bleeds through as the character slips away. Adult actors would have been far more adept at masking this labor, at rendering it invisible. Whereas The Audition and The Rehearsal involve children trying on adulthood, the two Nollywood stars who appear in The InterviewChinedu Ikedieze and Osita Iheme—are full-fledged professionals. This last chapter of the trilogy mimics the approach of an actual celebrity interview, the twist being that the showbiz success of the two adult interviewees is based on the pair having stripping away their adulthood to become children for the camera repeatedly over a decade.

The three works in the trilogy all in some way return to the interview scenario. The interview is assumed to be a platform that allows the self to reveal itself, to show its truth, which is why I was interested in threading interview conventions through the three chapters in the trilogy. An interview is expected to portray its subject without artifice, without contrivance, which is really not possible. The performance of a self is every bit as contrived and subject to the forces of convention, in my opinion, as an actor’s on-screen performance of a character. Maintaining a sense of selfhood means constantly reflecting or responding to other versions of selfhood that are being performed in close or distant proximity—in much the same way that actors must calibrate their performances in response to those of their on-screen counterparts. While for each of us—depending on the particular constraints of the context in which we enact individuality—there may be some conscious shaping of our roles, the role that any self plays is to a large extent shaped by forces that we can not steer, and to a large extent unfolds unconsciously.

— As told to Zachary Cahill