From age 11 to age 18.
It's hard to understand the idea of a seven-year commitment as a ten-year-old, when your time is measured out in school days. "I had to really say, 'If we start this, we need to see it through, even if we don't feel like it one day,' but she got it," explains artist Melanie Manchot of discussing her artwork 11/18 with her daughter Billie.
Manchot is a London-based artist whose work routinely investigates identity, often as it relates to the passing of time. An early piece she made, not long after graduating from the Royal College of Art, involved photographing her naked mother for five years, charting her evolving body in beautiful black-and-white gelatin prints for the series Look at You Loving Me. Manchot has documented a young London couple kissing on a double-decker bus in a seemingly uncut 10-minute loop, she's filmed basement bands in Berlin, photographed young women in Moscow, and is currently working on an ongoing project documenting two teams of mountain workers in a remote Alpine valley.
, which Manchot finished in 2015 and recently exhibited at Photo50 in London, is an installation about trust, commitment, and what it means to be a person. Starting in 2008, Manchot began shooting her then 11-year-old daughter on Super 8 film for one minute every month, and continued doing so for seven years. Though perhaps it's more accurate to say: she set up a camera and a backdrop and let her daughter film herself, capturing her own changing face and countenance over the course of her teenagehood. Melanie never watched her daughter during the filming, and gave her no directions other than to stay in the frame. In the resulting snippets of flickering film, Billie dances, smiles, looks pensive, gets shy at around 14, and seems to become more knowing as she approaches 18. "Those are the most unstable, radically shifting years of your life," says Manchot, but she's also interested in the instability of personhood more generally. "Seven years is also the length of time it takes for the human body to completely renew its cells," she adds, "Is it ever really possible to capture who a person is in a portrait?"
How important is it that the girl in the work is your daughter?
That information is always there and it's super present but I don't always foreground it. What's important to me is that when people come and see the the work they are looking at it as portraiture — and thinking about how someone at a particular age goes through these dramatic transformations — then maybe later they find out that it's my daughter.
When did you know that this project was something that you wanted to do? How did you discuss it with your daughter?
It became an idea when she was 9 or 10. A lot of my work is invested in ideas around what it means to be a person; there are questions around subjectivity, identity, and personhood. The time between 11 and 18 is kind of this massive upheaval and tribulation. There's also this interesting theory that in seven years we are completely new and our bodies' cells have been entirely replaced. But personhood is defined as physical and psychological continuity and that's obviously thrown into question when you consider that your body is absolutely unstable. The question for me really became: what if you look at a person at a very particular time in their life where they change more fundamentally chemically, hormonally, psychologically, emotionally than at any other time in our life?
Another ongoing concern is: What can portraiture achieve? Do you have access to the person you're seeing? What is actually performed? How much is the camera part of an equation? I also have an absolute fascination with Warhol's screen tests. I think they are so revolutionary and massively important within art portraiture. I watch them a lot, and 11/18 is very clearly formulated towards a screen test,. The camera is a Super 8 camera and it's set up in the studio, she stands in exactly the same spot, and there's the same background and same lighting. It's a very rigid structure.
Did you miss filming any months?
No, just missing it for one month would have put the whole thing in question. It was really important to have the entire record and she understood that. To me, the work is in many ways about time and the inscription of time on all of us. A roll of Super 8 film is three minutes, so it has time built into its physicality.
Did you give your daughter any direction during filming?
Just that she needed to stay within the frame. I was in the room with her but I never looked at her while it was filming. It's really important for me that it was an engagement between her and the camera more than between her and me. She could do what she wanted, wear what she wanted. It was her decision. She has authority and authorship over her own image.
What changes did you see when you finally looked back at all the footage?
You see her change physically. But you also see her being much more playful [in the beginning], then becoming slightly shy when she's 14 or 15 and a bit wonky. What also changes is her relationship to the camera. She sort of becomes more knowing of what it means when you present your image to a camera. I believe that the camera produces performativity. Cameras are very active not just passive machines that record, they create their own situation.
Another thing that's interesting is that this coincided with the [birth of] selfie culture. Billie is now 19. Nine years ago, at that time, people were taking pictures of themselves but there was no word "selfie." As we made the work [selfie culture] became prevalent and prominent. There is now this pressure, particularly for young people, to constantly self-represent and produce these images of themselves and, in a way, assert their existence, like, "I'm here, I'm doing this, I exist."
How does Billie feel about having this document of seven years of her life?
When we were making it, we only watched the material maybe twice in the whole seven years. When I showed it to her, she loved it. It was important that while we were making it, she had veto power. I told her if she didn't like it, it didn't have to become public. It would have just stayed as a record for us as a family. But she loves it. And it's her work, she calls it her work. She almost completely claims responsibility and authorship over it. She's really happy to have it because it's a huge record of her growing up in a very particular way — it's not just family snapshots, she has this complete, almost abstract, document of it.
What are you working on now?
I'm in the process of writing and developing my first feature film. Again, it's a portrait of one person who I've known for a while and will be working with. It'll be filmed over about nine months, following a young man that I met when he was 26. He'd been an addict and his family has generations of addiction problems and when I met him he was in recovery and he has been there ever since. He's since enrolled in drama school, and the film will look at that training and transformation.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Images courtesy of Melanie Manchot