Passing Through Bodies: the Dreamy World of Anisia Uzeyman

It is a house hidden from view. It is turns and turns up the bend and around, again, to get here. The Oh No We Passed The House Did We Pass The House. These days I’m being driven around by a poet he says Did We Pass It the right side of the road is only more California.

Through the curtains of green on the hillside we’ve parked under you can make out the shoulders of this house’s skeleton, up there. Up there where even from here it looks like somewhere Anisia Uzeyman would live with Saul Williams. It is the Asian influence in the architecture. It is the cool aloofness of the grounds -an aloofness that is patient, yes, it has time.

It is the door without a doorbell at their gate. The phone call and Wait I’ll Be Right Down, only she sends Saul, who greets us like a person, instead of a rockstar. His clothes -the blues that he swims in, this sea of fabric draped all about him, the large black necklaces, the knit cap: every each edge of the ensemble frayed, the earth tones -they are a rock star who has been there, who has done that, who holds a certain gravity to him.

Saul leads us up the stairs.

The yard of this place, a myriad of grasses and bamboos, breathes lightly. There is air getting through to any, to all. There is sun and our feet, touching stone to climb. There is a stillness, even though there’s all this beauty.

Three poets take the stone steps to find our muse for the afternoon, up on the deck. Uzeyman, whose film Dreamstates is its own poem, of love and the subconscious, shines brighter than all of us, from the moment we get there: with each word, with each drag of her cigarette, in her bright blue jumpsuit -just glows.

We start with a slow walk we talk about New York, where Williams was born and where the couple lived together in Harlem, on Riverside Drive, until 2015, when the rent kept on swelling like a tumor and a phone call said Come West.

So it’s here, it’s West where we meet them. It is here, in Laurel Canyon, this up up up where they are. Hidden in a blush of bamboo. And it is here, after our slow walk of words that Saul breathes deep, claps his hands and says: So. What Was It You Wanted To Do.

I have this old camera. It’s the only reason I’m sitting here, today. It’s the only reason I’m in California, that I got this job. It is the thing that I learned to take photographs with.

I got it for ten dollars at a thrift store in Ohio, a decade ago.

This camera is magick.

I explain all of this to the couple, carefully. Always be selling. I tell them about the unexpected errors, the light leaks, the mirages it makes. Mistakes, which are the only thing you can’t make on purpose, have a special home in my camera’s unpredictability, they come out to play.

Then I explain the game for today.

It goes like this: Dreamstates is a hypnotic poem about love. Two people meet in a dream and then, again, in real life. Its sound is all musicks and noises and sometimes nothing at all. Soft conversations between hearts that are beating.

The film has been entirely constructed from iPhone footage gathered by Uzeyman while travelling with Saul and his band on tour. The couple play their own alter-egos in the film.

The game goes like this: there is no better eye for photography than one who’s in love. I got much of my training photographing a person I was once engaged to. I learned because of her beauty.

The game goes this way: I will hand Saul my magickal camera, and he will learn its powers through Anisia’s beauty.

I’m just here to film the shoot.

It is Saul breaks the rhythm of my salesmanship. It is Saul who doesn’t let me go further. Here, here out West, in California, in Laurel Canyon, it is Saul’s Pisces chomping at the bit, whose voice first cracks the stillness:

“You already got film in that thing?”

And we are off we are running.

I figure in some ways this will be the best introduction for all of us, anyway, this dance. Artists, or at least the artists I surround myself with, function best when the social icebreaker is some form of play. It is how we say hello. Sniff each other out up up up in the bamboo blush.

There has been some match struck. Saul’s barely stood from his seat when he’s upstairs putting a record on for the mood. The shape of all our movement, the arc spread from the needle and the musick’s first kiss is shaped like this:

the poet I’ve brought along for backup and I sprint to keep up as

Saul leads the dreamy Anisia all around the property

like a person pulling a kite on a string. It is not forceful. It is delicate, measured, and sweet. It is a love song between them that we are only lucky to witness.

“Watch your step up here. Some animal shit, and it was no small animal,” he shouts down to us, catching up. He is directing the whole crew.

Like all good filmmaking, though, there is give and take:

There is Anisia, whose glow he cannot contain. Anisia, whose spirit seems to slip in and out of Saul’s fingers there is

There is a dreamstate happening in front of us, in this moment, here. We are witnessing true love in bloom. Its energy swells and seems to even ignite the air, so now sun is where no sun ever reached before, not even up up up.

Anisia is funny, in her half of the dance -serious for photos until her hair is her beard, or needs flipped or until she and her partner share some private joke.

And when the dance comes to an end, when we crawl through the last blades of grass to the deck again, when new smokes are rolled and the questions begin she is thoughtful, she is careful, and she is wise.

Here are the things I learned while I looked in her eyes.

INTERVIEWER

At what point when you’re collecting footage does it start to become a film? When you’re on tour -unless I’m mistaken, it seems like you were gathering it before the idea hit?

UZEYMAN

No, you’re mistaken. (Laughs) I had the idea of the film before and I actually wanted to make it on a regular camera. I wanted to make a film, a real one. And then, while looking for financing, I found myself in front of a lot of closed doors. People were basically telling me that, you know: I’ve never done a film before. I should do this or that. Rewrite the script. All those things. And the tour was coming up and I just thought what can I do with what I have. The opportunity of touring was right there, like okay: either I pass on this -you know: never make that movie because that tour’s never gonna come back or I see in my pocket what I have and what I had was an iPhone.

At that time there was I think one Taiwanese director that did one forty-five minute film on it. I started getting excited so I downloaded some applications and I started to build my mind around it.

So I was like okay I have a logline I have a script but I have to stay open to what’s gonna happen in reality. The idea was I have those big lines -the arc- and then I want the reality to nourish that that fiction. I’m coming from theater: I knew that reality was sometimes more fictional than fiction. We all know that, right? That reality can suddenly take over a fiction?

And so I went with those tools. Forty days in the states. An iPhone. A script that was open to the intervention of reality. And my new eye on the states because it was the first time I was travelling through the United States so I figured that that also could bring something to the vision that I had. I had Saul. A crew that was travelling with us so I had like five actors that were there every day and a tour.

When I started I was trembling It was crazy because I was learning everything at the same time. And eventually it excited me tremendously when we were shooting because he knew -Saul knew- that we were shooting. The others knew but weren’t really believing that I was really doing something. The people I was filming were so free because I was saying “No no I’m making a movie actually” but they were like, “yeah okay okay never mind.” (Laughs) And so they were giving some interesting things that I was excited to bring to the height of a fiction, of a movie. I thought it was exciting to explore that language. I really explored. What you see is me exploring.

And so after that, it’s true that I wasn’t sure that I had a movie. (Laughs) I wanted a movie. But I also felt that you can’t force those type of things, right? So I came back and I had eighteen hours of rushes, right? I found an editor who was crazy enough -a very talented editor- that I convinced to look through the rush to tell me if it was possible, right? So, we watched it and we said “yeah, I think there is a film in there.” Then we had to look for it.

We spent almost six months in the editing room to process those images. They had to be processed because we had the 4s, which is not the HD that it is today. The choice to have pixelization at some moment, to see if there was an emotion in them, whether part of a story or not. I did choose to film in black and white and in saturated color and in HD because I thought it was a good way also to tell a story, to film dreams. That has been a very big part. And then the sound was also a big part of it in terms of the writing because we filmed with the music. It also gives a mood to the images and to the story.

INTERVIEWER

Well sound and silence too-

UZEYMAN

Exactly. And so we decided to keep that music. It gives a rhythm to the structure. That was really important. Saul did the score. His character is also a musician. I wanted him to be in a creative moment to see ideas sparking on the road while touring, so all of that was a big part of the storytelling for me. And then the color grading also was a very important part.

INTERVIEWER

Especially for those really heavily saturated shots, like the red -there’s one shot I remember that’s like incredibly red and yellow at the same time-

UZEYMAN

Yeah-

INTERVIEWER

You’re playing with a lot of dream texture there. You talk about -reality is not quite reality. At what point do dreams and memory intersect and which is more real to you?

UZEYMAN

Well that’s the full story that I wanted to tell. I wanted to tell the story of two people that met in dreams and then meet in reality while touring America and while being taken by the American Dream. So it’s exactly where I tried to stay in the film is -what is nourishing what? Dreams are made of what? And I wanted to tell a love story. I didn’t want to go into documenting the failure of the American Dream. I wanted to pass through the bodies of people. I wanted to see how bodies were responding to falling in love, meeting each other, reality, landscape, how they lose themselves, how they find themselves, how they dream and how they fall off of a dream. I think the fall off in the film is related to the tension that exists in America around race, around economical gaps that are obvious when you’re touring. I wanted to show: in those pans of the landscape that are empty and then those houses that come from nowhere and the isolation. How you go through it when you are young and in love nexpectedly. Is it gonna break or is it gonna. Or are you part of a loop.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think there’s a purpose to dreaming?

UZEYMAN

Of course.

INTERVIEWER

What is it?

UZEYMAN

To make the world better. I think it’s a room of reflection, dreams. I think that the world is made better by -and I’m talking about not the common dreams right? Not the so-called egocentric dreams –

INTERVIEWER

The Freudian-

UZEYMAN

Yeah yeah you know, which are not dreams, by the way. Which are merchandise, I think. That are sold to us like. I think it’s like packages -oh you want what, what dream do you want? A little house with a? No. (Laughs) I’m not talking about those dreams I’m talking about the ones that are really like linking the unconscious and the conscious. I think the First Nations here have an understanding of that. And a lot of places give a very important place to that space that is the space of the dreaming.

So I think it makes. In a way it warns you. It opens doors, if you listen to it. And it’s also showing you things more clearly maybe sometimes than when you are just reflecting on things. I know that I have that relation. I did the film after a moment that was really interesting to me in life: when I was awake, I was living what I had dreamed and, when I was dreaming, I was dreaming of the day that I just had. Which is a weird moment. So it came also from that space. And recently I was even thinking that any idea for me maybe takes roots in a dream. An idea. You know, just the essence of the idea, I’m not saying the full idea, but. There is a lot of. Signs in dreaming. In dreams.

INTERVIEWER

Do you keep a dream journal.

UZEYMAN

No, I don’t.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever lucid dream? Like where you have full control -you can make choices that affect the dream but you’re more conscious of it? Like when I’m dreaming I like it because I have no control.

UZEYMAN

Yeah I heard people saying this. That they can control their dream. I never did it.

INTERVIEWER

Never?

UZEYMAN

No.

INTERVIEWER

Not even -I’ve done it accidentally a few times. That’s why people keep a dream journal sometimes is cus it helps you get to that place. I just like dreaming cus there’s no free will.

UZEYMAN

No I never did it. I know that there are some places that I’m visiting often but not because I want it. No. I don’t. You know there is a thing that it doesn’t exist in English. From where I’m from there are two kinds of dreams: there is the dream, the night dream, and something that is called songe. Which would be a bad dream but it’s not exactly bad. It’s just when you are floating, you know? And letting stuff coming to you, you don’t have to be asleep. For instance, when you are in that songe state, it’s kind of informing you, in a more concrete way. It’s less abstract, like. Oh, this is going to happen. Oh, this is what happened. I understand now. It’s two things that doesn’t exist in English and that I really think that that type of space is. It’s not a place of control but it’s a place that is more concrete. That is less unconscious. Less abstract.

INTERVIEWER

Right right. Do you have -and you can get as deep or. Please tell me to fuck off.

UZEYMAN

Fuck off. (Laughter)

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a spiritual practice and do you dreams intersect with that at all. Are they involved in that. It sounds a little bit when you talk about dreams just like guideposts.

UZEYMAN

No.

INTERVIEWER

No?

UZEYMAN

No.

INTERVIEWER

What are you coming back to, when you are coming back? The things that are recurring?

UZEYMAN

In my dreams?

INTERVIEWER

Yeah.

UZEYMAN

No, I can’t. (Laughs)

INTERVIEWER

Where do you think creation comes from in the body?

UZEYMAN

For a woman? I think it comes from the lower belly.

INTERVIEWER

Like the action center, almost?

UZEYMAN

I think, as a woman, you feel it coming from down here. Something that is like. For instance, I can’t force myself. I know that it’s right when I feel that it’s come. That it’s standing by itself. So I guess in the body it should come from the lower belly.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have an artistic practice? Like a regular-

UZEYMAN

Yes, my life. (Laughs) I’m inspired by reality.

INTERVIEWER

Sure. So as long as reality is vivid.

UZEYMAN

Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s still interesting enough to dig at. You know to try to gather it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you chase realities that produce more vivid results?

UZEYMAN

I don’t chase them. I’m attracted to them.

INTERVIEWER

Interesting.

UZEYMAN

I’m attracted to them. I’m attracted to whatever will create poetry. Whatever sparks poetry to me. So it can be a woman sitting on a bench while I’m passing in the car -her attitude. Or laying down the street: why is she there? And all of those things. Yeah, reality. Reality, definitely.

INTERVIEWER

This is another one you can answer or not answer. It’s just a question I like asking people: do you have an earliest memory?

UZEYMAN

(Thoughtful pause, then a smile) Sure. The smell of grilled peanuts.

INTERVIEWER

Really?

UZEYMAN

Yeah.

INTERVIEWER

Do you know around how old you feel you were at that time?

UZEYMAN

I think I must be like, I don’t know? Three?

INTERVIEWER

Sure. No one’s ever told me smell, before. That’s a good answer. Do you have a morning ritual or a daytime ritual that you keep to?

UZEYMAN

I have kids. (Laughter)

INTERVIEWER

Last one: what are you reading right now?

UZEYMAN

Right now I’m reading a lot of women. Circling around a project about women -crazy women- so, I can tell you one book from it. Kathy Acker-

INTERVIEWER

Kathy Acker’s wonderful. Did you read the Chris Kraus bio?

UZEYMAN

No, I didn’t read the bio.

INTERVIEWER

It’s super good-

It’s good? So her, um. Also a question of power. Yeah, I’m reading a lot of women. What was the, the. Notes of a Crocodile and that’s a young -where is she from? I think Vietnam. She died very young. She only has three books and her name is gonna pop up after I can tell you after-

WILLIAMS

Qiu Miaojin-

UZEYMAN

Qiu Miaojin. I’m very bad at names but her. Roxanne Gay. I have a pile like this of women and I’m like circulating through them.

INTERVIEWER

When I left college I started reading only women and have been on that track for five years now -in college they teach you that one shape of story that looks like that upside-down division sign, like every story is that shape. And then I started reading women and I was like oh, these are all other shapes-

UZEYMAN

Yeah, exactly-

INTERVIEWER

Even more interesting-

UZEYMAN

Exactly. I did that too, years ago. I got upset with books. I read a lot and I got upset because I thought they were lying at one point I felt like betrayed by them. And I went into my bookshelves and I was like Okay. I’m gonna put the men here and the women there. And I did it. And I was embarrassed, you know? I had this of women and THIS of men and so Okay Let’s. Let’s Reverse That Thing. And actually when you go there you realize that there is amazing, amazing work. I mean. Amazing. Like. We do a big deal about all those dudes and especially English and you realize that for every one dude there is a woman. I mean it’s very obvious that they. They manifested. But the ego didn’t get through. I guess because there is a lot. Everywhere. In every country.

INTERVIEWER

Yeah. That’s the whole. There seems to be a shift but like. It’s been a problem for a bit-

UZEYMAN

I hope so.

INTERVIEWER

Well there’s a lot more competitions that are centered around women now and a lot more publishers are making an effort I think. I hope-

UZEYMAN

Yeah, you know. The effort is great. I hope they’re not framing it. I hope they’re not framing it because that’s what’s interesting in the book by a woman is the exploration -the forms, the advancement. It’s a brighter society, I think. You know in philosophy, in everything -in poetry. There are really. It’s a world that is. So I hope they’re not-

INTERVIEWER

Controlling-

UZEYMAN

Framing, yeah. I hope there’s also women editors and women. It has to happen on every step. In order to be real.

Photos by Saul Williams

Toni Kochensparger is a writer from Ohio who now lives in Harlem. They keep a rotating portfolio of writing, photography, and installation work at www.missuppity.com.

Saul Williams has been breaking ground since his debut album, Amethyst Rock Star, was released in 2001 and executive produced by Rick Rubin. After gaining global fame for his poetry and writings at the turn of the century, Williams has performed in over 30 countries and read in over 300 universities, with invitations that have spanned from the White House, the Sydney Opera House, Lincoln Center, The Louvre, The Getty Center, Queen Elizabeth Hall, to countless, villages, townships, community centers, and prisons across the world. The Newburgh, New York native gained a BA from Morehouse and an MFA from Tisch, and has gone on to record with Nine Inch Nails and Allen Ginsburg, as well as countless film and television appearances.