In her autobiographical documentary “Narcissister Organ Player,” the performance artist Narcissister describes how she came to wear the mask that has become her signature, particularly when she’s playing often dressed in little else. As a young woman from La Jolla, California with a Sephardic Jewish mother with Moroccan roots and an African-American father from Watts, she longed for a look inspired by what she saw all around her in Southern California, an alternate persona named Kathy Winters, a blonde beach babe if there ever was one. In another family, this might be seen as an act of rebellion and even perhaps a betrayal of their natural origin, but amongst the family of intellectuals, it was more accepted as a sign of growth, creating an entirely new obstacle to rebel against – when there are no limits to guide you, where do you begin to find your own voice.
In seeking out an answer to that question, the provocateur, whose feminist-fueled performances involve pulling materials out of a felt vagina and for whom bras nor blouses have little use, pushes herself to reveal more than she ever has before, sorting through home videos, photos and the recesses of her mind to piece together how she found a sense of identity. Yet the film is first and foremost a tribute to her mother, whose death inspired Narcissister to investigate her family tree. As much care as Sarah Benzaquen Lumpkin shows for her daughter, demonstrating a detailed chicken soup recipe at one point and thinking nothing of sitting up on stage to knit as part of many of Narcissister’s outrageous performances, the artist lovingly draws parallels between her work and her mother’s influence, suggesting the immense power she had even as her health deteriorated. Although Narcissister is apt to put her finger over old yearbook photos to obscure her face and tell the camera person, “I’m never going to put my real person into this footage,” you realize she has and then some.
Following the film’s premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, “Narcissister Organ Player” is playing an exclusive run at Film Forum in New York before beginning its travels across the country and the multimedia artist spoke about putting together her first feature, making it more personal than she expected and creating an unconventional and original family portrait.
Why was this the right time for you to tell this story?
It was the right time because I’ve experienced such a great loss around my mother’s death and I wanted to tell her story and my dad’s too before I forgot the details of all of that. I’d been making short films as part of my Narcissister project since the very beginning, so I have been working with the medium of film, but I knew that in order to tell the various stories of my family and my relationship with my mom, I needed a medium that was more expansive than short video or even my performance, so it was just time. I applied for a Creative Capital Award grant in 2015 to make this film and when I got it and that just sent me along my way in making it.
Your brother shot these interviews with your mother when she took ill. Did you know that could be a foundation for the film?
Yeah, I was trying to make the film [at first] without his videos. My plan was to use the footage from the “Organ Player” stage performance, which I premiered in early 2012, and photos from our family archive. I wasn’t even the one delivering the voiceover. And I just got very stuck with the film. It wasn’t strong. It wasn’t rich. It wasn’t evocative. And then I remembered that my brother had these videos, so I asked him if I could use them. He was reluctant at first, but fortunately he came around and I think they contribute so much. Taryn Gould, who ended up bringing the project to the finish line, was the third editor that I worked with, and I’m so grateful we connected because she came onboard right around the time that I got the family videos from my brother and she was so skillful in weaving those videos together with the other content that I had.
How did you come to add your own perspective through the voiceover?
[It was from] interviews that were originally only intended to gather information to use to write a script for the film. But when the film wasn’t working – we didn’t have the videos from my brother and it [had a] half script-written by somebody else, we went back to the interviews and realized that’s where the strongest material was, hearing me tell the stories and hearing the emotion or expression in my voice. That’s when we went in the direction of using those recorded interviews.
The interviews were with various people, some of the settings were more formal and some were very casual, but being as open as I possibly could about the details of my life and the details of my family was challenging and I did feel vulnerable. In the end, I feel grateful to have the opportunity to do that kind of soul-searching and to engage in that process of remembering so many details about my family and articulating it.
When you’re digging through your past like this both physically and mentally, did you learn anything surprising or new about your family?
So much. It was such a deep process for me. I had to dig really deep to not only remember all the stories, but also come to my own understanding of the impact on my work and myself of my family life and in particular my relationship with my mom. I had a vague sense of the truth of this, but I had to make it concrete in order to explain it through this film. I also had to carefully look through the family photos and I interviewed my mom’s sisters who are still alive. I had to really inform myself as I never had before on what my family picture was. I know it’s still a work of fiction because it’s just my telling of the family story and my recollection, but it was a very deep and meaningful process for me.
Was the idea of birth a strong spine for the film from the start?
That’s a big theme in my work separate from this film, but of course since this film first and foremost is about my relationship with my mother, the person through which I came to this earth plane, it just made sense that there’s a lot of birth imagery and a lot of water imagery – not only because my mom grew up on the water in Morocco and I grew up on the water in La Jolla, California, but also because water and mother is the same word in French – “La mer,” it just felt right to embed all of this symbolism in the film.
Was your mother’s poem that you open the film with something you knew about before?
I knew of my mom’s poems [in general] and she shared them with me and with friends in a very casual way. It was Taryn’s idea to incorporate so much of my mom’s poetry in the film. I was a little bit hesitant myself at first because I didn’t think that the strength of the poems would come across if they were excerpted, but I’m so thrilled that we did because people are responding to them so much. I’ve actually created a book of my mom’s poems that’s going to be available for purchase at Film Forum and also my website, so people can experience even more of her beautiful work.
The music is also quite evocative throughout. How did you go about putting it in?
Narcissister is so much about pop cultural critique, so for most of my Narcissister work, I use pop songs and a few of them are in the film. Luckily, given our very limited budget, the pop songs were considered fair use, so that’s why we were able to use songs such as “I’m Every Woman” or “I’m Hungry,” but the underground music comes from different sources. I play noise music — not very well [laughs] — but I got exposed to a lot of noise and other experimental bands and musicians through that scene, so I incorporated a lot of that music and Taryn suggested different musicians for the film [as well]. I’m proud to say Peaches is a friend and a colleague who offered her song for the end of the film, and Shara Nova, formerly of My Brightest Diamond, wrote the theme song for the film before she had even seen any of the film! She just offered it to me, so I feel so grateful to have worked with so many stellar, talented musicians. Kyp Malone from TV on the Radio offered music to the film and played at the preview screening the other night, so it’s been wonderful to incorporate this music and [have so many] be so generous about gifting it.
Speaking of the preview screening, what’s it been like bringing something so personal out into the world?
It’s been so special. Taryn and I, and my brother also, came out to many of the festivals in the past six months and people seem so moved by the film. There have been very lively Q & As following the screenings and people want to come up to me afterwards and share their own family stories. It just feels so profound that so many people that would’ve never had an opportunity to meet my parents, including my close friends, are meeting them through this film and experiencing a bit of who they were. So I feel that the film honors them and the more it goes out into the world, the more people get to experience them and reflect on their own family stories and own relationships with their parents and that I have this as a document before more time passes is a real gift to me.