Phoenix Conversations is an attempt to document and celebrate, in text and video, the courageous act of agreeing to talk about oneself to a near-stranger on Zoom for an hour, and more broadly, the extent to which Vision Lab has provided a platform for personal connection and friendship in a time of acute social isolation.
From the summer of 2020 through the winter of 2021, Grace conducted a series of one-on-one interviews with Vision Lab members, exploring each individual’s experience of the global pandemic, their spiritual and/or creative practices, and their relationship to the phoenix. Phoenix Conversations is presented as a collection of edited transcripts and a short video.
Grace Jackson interviewed by Kythe Heller.
Contributing Artists: Eliza Yvette Esquivel
Sahaj Kaur/Shelley Loheed
Contributing Artists: Eliza Yvette Esquivel
Sahaj Kaur/Shelley Loheed
KH: Can you talk about your background in video and what brought you to this project with Vision Lab?
GJ: For about a decade now, I’ve been really interested in the moving image, using it to tell stories and to convey sensations. The context in which I met you, Kythe, was an introductory documentary filmmaking class at Harvard, which, looking back on it now, was the launching point for the past eight years of my life. That was where I learned to use a camera and to edit. More than the study of Chinese and Chinese history, which was the other thing I was doing at Harvard, when I graduated it was my videography skills that I ended up using professionally, to support myself. So, I have a professional interest in video, but also a personal creative relationship with it. When I joined Vision Lab, after you reached out to me, shortly after the first lockdown of the pandemic, I naturally thought I wanted to do something in video. At the same time, I was feeling out this group and wondering, who are these people? Why are they all here? What connects them? And how can I build a relationship with them? It felt somewhat natural for me to move from the weekly meetings to arrange one-on-one conversations with each member to get to know them and ask them about their work and personal experiences of the pandemic. And it felt quite scary. At times I felt quite resistant to it because meeting someone online, the stakes somehow feel higher than meeting in person. The silences bear more weight. But everybody was really wonderful. I ended up having some really pivotal conversations with people. The way I'm thinking about the project is as a way of honoring and embodying connection, which this year has necessarily been disembodied and digital and remote. I wanted to explore the limits of that with a group of, essentially, strangers. The project is the video and the interviews, but ultimately, it’s the relationships that I’ve built in Vision Lab this year.
KH: I remember that the first films of yours that I saw were both about families – one about a family of makers in Vermont and another about a Taiwanese family in Taipei. It seems that in your work, the eye of the camera is investigating the spaces between people and the distances between them. In a deeper way, I think it's investigating how intimacy works in practice, asking questions like, what is it to have an intimacy with someone and share a space with them and how can it be shown or known? What is it that we can understand from it? And how can I participate in the deepest, truest form of intimacy there is? There's a deep paradox in that as the maker of the film, you are actually separate from all these relationships, on the outside looking in. You're always stepping outside of yourself. Could you talk about what it's like to be both part of a group and also the one who is trying to tell the story of it, to engage in relationships while also trying to understand something about them. What is that like for you?
GJ: I think it's all about mediation. The camera is a medium of mediation, it intercedes between me and the world or me and my subject, but I also use it, cunningly, as a means of achieving intimacy. Maybe it’s a way of having it both ways, you know—a safe way of having intimacy. It felt that way going into these interviews with people I didn't know very well. It was a really intense experience because one-on-one video calls are like being in a tunnel with somebody. It’s very exposing. But the mediating technology of the interview is the list of questions. They make it less scary because there's less contingency. And what I found when I was transcribing the interviews was that having that boundary and structure of the questions allowed me to be spontaneous in the way I was responding to people. I had these great kind of spin-off conversations which went way off topic. That felt like its own kind of intimacy. In general, I am interested in relationships between other people, and between myself and my subject. If you can feel a sense of longing for intimacy in my work, then I think on some level at least the work has succeeded, because that’s where I start from, in everything I do.
KH: I think there's another dimension to all of this, too. I'm wondering about your own spiritual practice. That seems intertwined with this longing for intimacy, with your work, and also with the vision of Vision Lab. Could you talk about your spiritual path and how you understand it?
GJ: I am on a path, and it feels very winding and like it's filled with obstacles at every turn. And creative work has a lot to do with it. For me, the idea of being on a spiritual path is all about the need to remove obstacles. Spiritual work in essence is the process of identifying and then removing obstacles. How you do that removal depends on your tradition and approach, whether it’s through meditation or movement or prayer. But ultimately all the obstacles and mental anyway. I’ve recently discovered a distinction between struggle and suffering, which I’m finding productive for both spiritual and creative work. A lot of our suffering comes down to a fear of or aversion to certain sensations, whether it’s a fear of failure, or a kind of maniacal ego voice that says you need to be perfect, and constantly raising the stakes of everything you do. You can use spiritual work to reframe that, by asking, do you want to keep suffering or are you willing to struggle and grapple and be present?
KH: Would you roughly describe your project, and how it relates to the phoenix and how you think about the phoenix yourself?
GJ: It’s very easy to sound trite when discussing the phoenix because it's such a ubiquitous cultural trope. But what I found most compelling about this image is the idea that the phoenix chooses to die after building a nest where it will self-immolate. The nest that it builds, according to the ancient myths, consists of all these spices like cinnamon and frankincense. It's a fragrant place to settle down and end its current existence. So, for me, the deeper message of the phoenix is that we need to get more comfortable with death, to reckon with it, and achieve some kind of acceptance of the idea of mortality, because I think that will help us to live in a way that's much more in tune with who we really are. I want my project to just serve as a celebration of the human capacity to connect, in the midst of incredible struggle and strangeness and alienation. Maybe that's part of the phoenix's mission, too, because being aware of our own mortality only heightens our need to connect with other human beings.
KH: You remind me, too, that the phoenix dies alone. The phoenix dies a solitary death, just as we all do, and as we're seeing many people dying now during this time of COVID-19. But all the parts of us that are usually so fragmented and spread out, the parts of our own psyche, but also our relationships with each other that tend to be scattered, and even with this group, people are all over the world…but your piece in celebrating the possibility for connection represents, in a way, the actual care that the phoenix enacts, essentially as it dies. Because in order to die like that, so consciously, which is very, very rare, you have to gather all the pieces of yourself, all the parts of you that have been scattered, all the pieces of your soul that have been frozen in moments of trauma, that can be released back so that you have to be fully conscious as you die so that you die as an entire being, integrated. But that could also be seen as on a broader social level, within Vision Lab, where everyone has come together, and you're finding these points and beautiful moments of connection in the interviews.
GJ: I also think about some of the Tibetan Buddhist practices of meditation on death, whereby monks would meditate in a graveyard, on human remains, on an empty skull. It might sound strange, but I think it’s so beautiful that there’s a tradition that invites you to contemplate the disintegration of the flesh in that way. I suppose all religions have an element of that, like for example the medieval Christian practice of contemplating Christ's wounds, for example, and other deep mystical practices that revolve around visualizations of suffering and pain. But the ultimate goal, I think with those practices, regardless of tradition, is to make you more human.
KH: And in a sense, you can think of every living moment as a kind of death, if you're paying full attention. We have the capacity to reorient by facing ourselves that deeply, so that we live with this true orientation toward what's really important. I think oftentimes people who come into close contact with death are forever changed by it, and that is a kind of purification. And I think a lot of people intuitively understand the phoenix as both a warning and a celebration of the possibility of their lives to achieve what you call being human.
Grace Jackson is a filmmaker, writer and English-Chinese translator based in Cumbria, UK. Having lived for several years in Taiwan, her interests include Chinese and Taiwanese history, ethnographic filmmaking and international experiential education (pre-pandemic, she designed and led several study abroad trips in Taiwan and China). Grace holds an MA in East Asian Studies from Harvard University and a BA in English from the University of Cambridge.