Firebird (2021) is a film that involves a sensory exploration of the sonic, gestural, and mythic space of the traumatized-by-fire ecosystem of redwood trees in Northern California. Based on the collection of poetry Firebird, by Kythe Heller, which was published as these fires were raging, the film reinterprets the poetry as a performance score. Here, fire is both a destructive and a transformative force, altering a woman and a landscape. The female body becomes the site of trauma and myth, a place where “everything is burning, has been and is always burning” and being born. Directed by Kythe Heller and Anya Yermakova, voice and script by Kythe Heller, performance by Anya Yermakova, edited by Marizó Siller, cinematography by Shireen Hamza and Peter Bradley, sound engineering by George Trksak.

Anya Yermakova Interviewed by Kythe Heller.

Edited by Grace Jackson.

KH: I'm so happy that you are able to join us. And I would like to begin by asking you about your background and the kinds of art and thought that have brought you to this project.

AY: my background's been a little bit all over the place. Um, I've done a lot of movement, movement, practice, movement, research, dance, things that look more like dance or less like dance, dance in nature. Um, and then framing all that has been, uh, uh, a sound centric practice, or eliciting practice, I should say.

Um, and listening might sometimes look like or result in things that are. Sonically oriented, um, like, you know, uh, composing or, or playing music or making scores, um, making sounds of various sorts. And sometimes that listening is, you know, more, more of an embodied practice of, of listening multimodal kind of listening.

AY: and. And so yeah, this project has a lot of that. Um, especially given that it's in nature and it's thinking with nature and dancing with nature and listening to, um, uh, a particular site in the forest.

KH: You just completed your dissertation at Harvard in  the history of silent science and critical media practice.

And is there a way in which you could give us a thumbnail sketch maybe of the ways you're thinking about the relationship between the body and movement and sound, that relates to this research or that encompasses this way of approaching media?

AY: Sure. Yeah. Um, so, uh, well, what I have researched in history of sciences, history of logic, and especially history of non binary logic, and I've thought a lot about, um, kind of leaving alone, the word logic, which in, in how we employed in English, at least certainly comes it's loaded in assumption of rationality and.

All sorts of things. I want to resist and want to say that logic can be other things too. And so, uh, I've thought a lot about kind of expanding from logic to logic reality, and even the logic King as a, as a, as an action. And what, what can that be? What has that been? Um, if enacted, not by, you know, this like.

Brain centric, Western model, where contradictions are bad and they're supposed to be, um, eliminating. And so. And so the body actually, you know, despite the fact that we, we, despite the fact that the body has been put in a lot of binary categories, um, over and over again, it actually, the body is so performative.

Like it resists binarism just by being and via that, you know, very gentle resistance. The, the bodies. Enact so many different kinds of logic, realities. Um, so, so many ways of being, um, dynamic and fluid and capable of listening to contradictory information and contradictory information and allowing for emergent complex structures of meaning that sometimes supervenes on one another sometimes do not.

Um, and, and all of those have, you know, uh, so many different kinds of logics embedded in them. And, and in, in a way that, like, they're, they're not all in commensurate with one, another one doesn't necessarily STEM from one another, but in some ways they're all true. Um, and so without kind of wanting a relativity.

Or relative as truth, but wanting pluralism of logic, I've, I've wanted to develop this very careful practice of listening where I want that to come alive. And I want to experience that, that kind of, yeah, the supervening liberalism and the superposition of

KH:  That was so beautiful.

You know, you're making me think about the piece that you just completed called mythological thing. And it occurs to me that the Phoenix also is a mythological thing. And I wonder if there was a sort of logic that you experienced in dancing the Phoenix in this piece?

AY: Yeah, definitely. Yeah, it's interesting.

Uh, I've thought about kind of myth and mysticism a lot in my work. Um, let's see. Um, also as a way of thinking through pluralism of, of logic, reality and pluralism as logic

KH: and.

AY: Yeah. And the, and the Phoenix, um, when I encountered your poetry and we, when we had talked about it, um, it's something that, well, sonically, at least right away spoke to me as sort of both so loud and silent, um, at the same time.


Cause it's, yeah, it's so loud. Like it's so, um, you know, like in loud, in the most. Kind of, if I imagined this mythological creature and I imagine close miking, it like loud in that sense, I'm also loud in like, I don't know, in all of its movements and all of the vocalizing, like I imagined that being loud and at the same time, the kind of mythological.

Structure and, and narrative and journey, um, that you were enacting with that poetry had so much silence in it. Um, and so that was a very fruitful contradiction for me. Like I love, I love being in addictions. Like I just think there's so much there and there and I'm, I love the in-between this of it.

Whereas like they're constantly super-imposed. Um, and so, yeah. And so then, you know, Being being in nature in a forest, which is actually mostly silent, but then being not silent fully, but it's a quiet forest. It's not a forest that's inhabited by like a ton of. I don't know, like birds, for example, like you hear bird sounds, but they're not that frequent.

Um, but also dancing inside of Birch tree, which is also like, it feels so loud.

KH: I love, I love this because I never really fully kind of have been thinking phenomenologically about the experience of listening to a Phoenix before, even though I've been so obsessed with them and it's been such a part of this.

Well project. I never really thought about what a Phoenix would sound like, but I love it that you're thinking about it that way. Um, let's take a step back. And can you just give me an outline of how this project came about?

Um, how did this project come about?

AY: I don't know if I remember the origin story. Uh, I mean, I, I remember a series of very

KH: kind of

AY: intimate and intense conversations with you. Um, and then. I remember reading, well, this is already not the origin because I was already on a flight to do the filming, but I re I remember reading the book, um, kind of on a plane in while I was in air.

Um, but it was a Okay. Well, I mean, there was a conversation about,

KH: uh,

AY: what the Phoenix has been. For you who that girl is in the story, um, and sort of an invitation to dance it and what that would mean. And I remember so much that the flamenco, as, as you know, a source of inner power relief and traditionally, um, as I learned it, at least connected to the gypsy culture as a kind of a connection to ancestry connection to the spirit of ancestors, um, And I, I think it was a moment in my life where I was also just so well, it was a moment, not just in my life, but in sort of the planet earth of, of looking for sources of, of, um, empowerment that already are there and looking for kind of, um, yeah, for kind of inner strength, maybe, especially.

Especially when it seems like it had been depleted or taken away or something. And so flamenco is such a as a dance form, um, is such a logical sort of form to turn to, and to engage with and to. And to do embody because it isn't a form that I've been that intimate with in the last few years, but I did have, you know, years of very intimate practice with it.

And so I was just so curious, like what, you know, what it would feel like to just kind of like, like situate myself in a place and just let my body a under like, practice the, how can I prime my embodied memory. Um, and yeah, and then thinking about. Thinking about the, the Phoenix and the burning girl that was kind of at the, at the, at the center of, of the poetry.

And it's the center of my kind of imagined, um, relation to the poetry.

KH: Uh,

AY: it seemed like it made sense to then, you know, find a place. In which I could connect to the embodied memory of flamenco.

KH: Yeah, I was. So I was so amazed that somehow this piece just happened so naturally, but looking back on it, there's, um, It's really extreme, you know, like literally the whole West, it felt like was burning on fire and obvious redwoods and ancient ancient trees.

Um, just going up in smoke and smoke, kind of like carving a dense fog through the entire Pacific Northwest and California. And you literally were in, based in. Chicago and flew straight into the smoke and fire, um, and happened to have a connection with someone who was staying in the redwoods. Um, and so this piece suddenly materialized as a reality.

And could you say something about like, what that experience was like about being in this sort of ecological war zone and. Choosing to do this work and kind of what you felt about what the piece needed to speak to this situation.

AY: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Um, yeah, I mean, well, first of all, I should say it felt reckless, um, because not only was I flying into, uh, and literally descending from the plane into a cloud of.

Ash, uh, and smoke and, and the kind of brownish reddish tint to the sky that I have never seen before. Um, and also I was getting on a plane in the middle of a pandemic and, uh, you know, this was, this was way before there were any vaccines or work before I knew anybody around me would possibly be vaccinated.

So, um, So, yeah, it felt, it felt reckless in a way. And it felt like kind of a responsibility in that time to do precisely that, uh, because the fact that the redwoods were on fire and you know, so much of the West, the West, not just the West coast, right? Like there were States. Wait that had gigantic forest fires that were on the other side of the mountain bridge.

Like it, it was, um, a dramatic heat wave, um, really, and,

KH: uh,

AY: and the time of the pandemic had, uh, you know, for me anyway, it slowed, it made

KH: the experience.

AY: It slowed a lot of people down, but it certainly made me pay attention to those fires in a, in a way that maybe I hadn't in previous years, because it wasn't the first time, you know, big fires in California were happening.

Um, and so it felt like, okay, well I have, I have this time and I have this kind of creative. Energy and the possibilities. And I actually want to be in relation to that, which is on fire right now. Um, because it isn't gonna, you know, somehow just reverse itself that isn't going to magically happen. And so there's a collective responsibility to pay attention to it. Um,

KH: and, and.

AY: And because there's so much noise also in how to pay attention to it, what to do. And I think the pandemic has also been a time of almost paralysis into like, you know, what, what do you do? How does one act? And, and, and in some ways, like a proximity to, to, to that burning, to, to the situation, to whatever you know, was sort of the, the, the, the source of the troubling.

Sensation. Um, I had to touch it and probably, you know, one of the strongest than feelings was not that I've never touched a Birch tree, but with that in, in kind of would that container of thoughts and intentions, touching the burned tree, feeling the texture, uh, feeling the beauty of the texture and also feeling it as a wound, which you said, and whenever it talks like, um, That's really,

KH: that's really powerful.

Could you, um, speak a little bit about how you understand spirituality, um, because you've got speaking about the ancestry that you were kind of seeking, um, in the dance and movement and in sound, um, or maybe through flamenco in a particular way, and then. You know, there's something here about touching the wound and needing to somehow exist at the source of this disturbance.

And, um, touching the wound is a complex image, but it's also potentially an image of healing and it was formed at the divinity school. And there's such an. Such a source, um, in the spiritual for all the artists who are involved in it. And I think, you know, mostly it's a little bit under wraps because spirituality is a really difficult thing to speak about and the word itself doesn't really capture it well, what it means for different people, because it's so personal, but is there a way in which spirituality operates in your own life, that's possible to speak about.

AY: Yeah. Um, well actually my encounter with vision lab and, and the way that, uh,

maybe the reason that spoke to me, um, is because there was space for that conversation within the Academy. Um, and I, I, you, you invited me to do a presentation on puddle. . This is one of the people I studied. Um, he's this mathematician, theologian, mystic. Uh, he gets so many different labels depending on what circles he's in.

Um, but ultimately a visionary and a visionary who said,

KH: um,

AY: well, Like many of his contemporaries, but also very sadly, uh, didn't survive the first years of the Soviet union. And,

KH: um,

AY: I have had an ongoing practice for many years that I, most of the time don't really understand, but it is kind of a connection to,

KH: um,

AY: To that time in place of roughly a hundred years ago, um, around the turn of the revolution and the former Russian empire and this kind of explosion of creativity, um, that, that wants to get engaged with just all forms of rational and irrational as logical and.

Manifests in anything from math books to operas to, and at the root of it, like, I, I get it, like I know exactly what it is and yet I don't really have words for it. And now I've written a dissertation and I can't say that I have words for it. Like I have words around it. Um, I have a lot of words around it and I have a lot of words about certain pockets of it, but there's just kind of, um, and I, you know, the few times that I've.

I feel like I have like, had a spiritual connection with one of these actors with one of these entities, with one of these historical figures. I don't think the word ancestry is like, Oh, one of them was in my lineage as in like, it was some great, great brothers or something. Um, or at least that's what I felt.

It just feels like there's a distributed spirit in that time that lives. And I somehow embodies in certain ways that are inexplicable in my contemporary time, but entirely explicable by that time, the more I learned about it, um, some of that spirit lives in me,

KH: um,

AY: you know, kind of very clear ways to explain it. Like, for example, there's this. Book I had when I was a kid, um, it was like a book of logical puzzles that I just loved. And I like, all of the pages are born and I did it so many times. And only recently I looked at the preface of that book. I mean, it was like printed in 1970s.

My dad bought it at some children's bookstore, um, in the eighties. And I read the preface to the book recently and apparently it was. Actually written by this person, uh, in 1907 and then it was slightly rearranged and reprinted and, and this person wasn't somebody I studied, but he was very much in the circle of the people who I studied.

And so I was like, Oh, this all makes sense. Um, but also it's it's, it would be under explaining the connection to just say, Oh, I like, you know, I felt this connection. The connection can not be fully explained by the fact that I had that book as a kid. There's something. Bigger than

KH: that. Okay. Um, okay. So I think where this leads to, for me, really the sort of final question that I wanted to ask you was about the future.

Then we've just been talking about the era of time around the Russian revolution. And how you were speaking about that in the vision lab talk that you gave so wonderfully. I remember it very well at the center for the study of world religions and that speaks, I know it speaks directly to the dissertation that you just wrote, and I know it speaks to your ideas about art-making and kind of the, uh, the inextricable, uh, interconnections between art and life.

And science and art, um, all these things that are seen to be dualistic premises, but you know, are actually not so at all. Um, so what I'm wondering is about the future and certainly there's an lab is, is one of its impulses is to reclaim this idea of the visionary. But, and certainly like the figures from the pre Soviet times that you were talking about around the ref, the revolution were visionary in their own.

Right. But I guess I'm wondering how you might aspire to be a visionary yourself or enact this kind of worldview or premise or possibility, um, for your own life, but then maybe also. Like certainly the work that you're making for this Phoenix work speaks to equal like broader ecological concerns. And a lot of the other pieces that are being made also kind of speak to this moment in time, in different ways.

So how might the visionary or these sort of impulses towards a spiritually based collective or personal art practice, or how might this sort of embodied. Dimensional consciousness be activated towards the future.

AY: Um, so really good question. I have many thoughts. Uh,

KH: I,

AY: I think I have, I have many thoughts and maybe some plans, but I also think other plans will emerge. Um, I think this practice of, of listening,

KH: um,

AY: Like it seems so simple in some respects and, and yet, so radically necessary. Um, like I thought about radicality a lot, uh, in, in, in my research, in, in the redwoods being in the forest, like the radical. That is the roots. The roots of those are the radicals and how that is what it means to be radical. That like, um,

KH: that root is,

AY: um, yeah, and the, the kind of the dirt, the, the, the exposed burn, the exposed roots, and then the roots that kind of,

KH: um,

AY: That go into the ground, go into the unseen, go into something, um, that maybe I'm not capable of seeing.

And I sh I don't need to see, but I need to trust that it's there and trust that it has, that that's where the power lies, but that's, that dirt is also life-giving. Um, and, and yeah, I think, you know, having kind of immersed myself in history for the last. Seven years. I never, I never couldn't imagine me doing that.

I never thought of myself as a historian that was somewhat accidental, but I realized that's what the journey was about. It's kind of like needing to immerse, not only, Oh, those people were visionary, but also the that's surrounded them and that's around you. And I use that. I use the word dirt, not necessarily to say that.

And it was like, like bad or, you know, Just the things are messy. Um, decisions are messy. Life is messy and that messiness is like not to be ignored. Um, and so, you know, in this kind of ecological mindset in this. Any thought experiment about future. I want an engagement with that. Like, would that form of radicality that rooted, that engagement, all of that is messy and dirty and not sort of being like, Oh no, I just, I'm just here to seek the life.

Um, yeah. And then seeing the light, seeing the light in that. And then, I mean, there's a kind of very, there's a kind of a tension that I think, um, I was able to cultivate in that project. There was a kind of attention that, especially towards the end of the dissertation, I was able to cultivate, um,

KH: which

AY: thinks about futurity, not so much as a dream, but actually very much like as an Oh, I'm just staying here with all the risks.

KH: Yeah. That's beautiful. Wow.

AY: I hope that makes some sense,

KH: a lot of sense. Um, is there anything else that you think is important to talk about or to mention, or that you wanted to bring up

AY: into this conversation?

Well, maybe I'll just add to the last point.

KH: Um,

AY: there's a part in the, in the book and we talked about it, um, that talks about snow. Um, and. Yeah. In some, in some, in some, you know, parallel or possible world, we also thought about shooting on snow and doing it as a part of the project that would engage with an entirely different ecological setup.

Right. Not the burning of the redwoods, but the melting of the ice cap in the Pico or, you know, um, or that dimension. And I've, I've, I've just been thinking a lot more about. Water as well and oceanic way of being an apartment. Cause all this logic that I engaged with, had to do with, you know, a thought experiment of how could logic be, if at the foundation, it didn't have these static propositions that were evaluated as your false, but at the foundation had atomic notions that were dynamic that were oceanic in a sense.

Um, so. You know, and I've encountered that like, Oh, well, that, that possibility is closer. Um, in certain cultures than others like that, that's not like that possibility is for close to us. Um, and it's not like one house, two entirely on Hindu philosophy and logic in order to counter

KH: it. Um,

AY: but I, I, I. Yeah. I, I have thought a lot about logical pluralism from an ecological perspective and with a mythological with the logic King practice.

Um, and when I say I don't, like, I think I, sometimes it emerges with a lot of clarity, like this project did as an, what does that mean when there's an ecological goal and mythological practice and in, in seeking a logical pluralism? And it's very clear. Um, um, and I'm excited. What, what, what the next dimension of that will be?

I don't entirely know

KH: me too. I can't wait to find out. Thank you. Thank you so much. I think that's good, right? I think that's good. So beautiful. All right. We'll be in touch very

AY: soon. Get some rest.

Kythe Heller is a poet,  multimedia artist, and scholar working across text, performance, filmmaking, installation, and media. Her work approaches art-making as a practice of consciousness: In what ways can our work together become sites of evolution, realizations of new social, technological, and ecological relationships, by considering how to use language and media to radically change our ways of being in the world? She is author of the  poetry collection  Firebird (Arrowsmith), two chapbooks, critical studies in philosophy of religion, art, and poetics published by Cambridge UP and Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics, and essays and poems. Her performance and multimedia work has been staged at the Harvard Film Studies Center, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, SEEDS Festival, Sonoma State University, WAXworks (NYC), BAX (NYC), Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and elsewhere.  Currently she is completing a doctorate at Harvard University in Comparative Religion and Art, Film, and Visual Studies/ Critical Media Practice. She founded VISION LAB in 2017.

Anya Yermakova grew up in Russia, where she attended an experimental primary school, before migrating to the US in the 90s. She is almost the embodiment of “interdisciplinary”, with degrees in biochemistry, piano performance, logic, and Russian philosophy (first two at Northwestern; last two at Oxford). She is currently doing a PhD in the History of Science at Harvard University. She is fascinated by the relationship between art and science. Anya spends much of her time listening to, recording, playing with, composing from small sounds in the field and on instruments. Her recent work includes: a Charango Concerto in collaboration with Sebastián Pérez, which is based on the fundamental laws of nature, producing performance art sci installations in Boston, assistant directing Creatures of Prometheus with Ballet Chicago, composing poly_x for 40 speakers, 2 screens and 3 dancers, curating and performing in the “Berg sonata for piano and dancers” in New York and in Tunisia, and ongoing site-specific instantiations of Fermata, for Pianist and Someone

Marizo Siller is a Mexican experimental artist based out of Los Angeles, CA. Her background in dance helped her communicate with others through movement, and later on, the realization that one can dance not exclusively with the body, helped her translate her language into film and other forms of art.