Public sunlight and private shade
photo: failing_angel, flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license

Public sunlight
and private shade


Brothers Quay are the central figures of the retrospective at the 10th Era New Horizons festival in Wrocław, 22 July – 1 August 2010. The central motif of Inventorium of Traces, which premiered in Poland at the last year's Kraków Film Festival, is a secret life of Łańcut Castle, haunted by a ghost, its long-standing owner, Count Jan Potocki

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Adriana Prodeus: We have just seen your last production Inventorium of traces made here in Łańcut. In one of the first scenes a group of teenagers is walking through the castle wearing those special museum shoes. Is it some kind of strange choreography?

Brothers Quay: We were amused by these alerts, warnings CAUTION! SLIPPERY FLOOR SURFACE! That was something real and humorous at the same time. A great material to create choreography out of it. And when Wit [Wit Wojtowicz, the director of the Łańcut castle – ed.] saw the film he said: “No more of these shoes in the castle!” (laugh) He called it an anti-ballet.

What was your way to resurrect Potocki’s past documenting Łańcut’s everyday life?

Stephen AND Timothy Quay

The Quay Brothers, identical twins, were born in Norristown, near Philadelphia, in 1947. After graduating in 1969 from the Philadelphia College of Art, where they studied illustration and graphics, they won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, London. At the School of Film and Television they made their first short films (mostly lost), and met fellow student Keith Griffiths, who first collaborated with them on Nocturna Artificialia (1979), funded by the BFI Production Board. Working together as Koninck Studios, with Griffiths producing, the Quays have maintained a steady output of surreal and fastidious puppet animation films, supplemented by design work for opera, theatre and ballet. To help finance their avant-garde projects they have also worked on TV commercials, channel identification footage, and numerous music videos, including the Stille Nacht series, and, less characteristically, Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer.

The castle is now a public institution trafficked day in and day out seven days a week. We were trying to imagine if there is really room left for the traces of Potocki, or of a former history. That’s to say: is it a frozen or living history? We genuinely wanted to search if there were any spaces left of Potocki here. We found one tower room above the library. This room, which in fact is  off-limits to the public, had a mysterious ladder projecting into an octagonal hole in a ceiling, it suddenly became a sort of a mediated space, where a lot of potential energy was virtually howling. Of course it was purely imaginery for us. Because all the other spaces were too rigorously taken over by a kind of bourgois respectability. And so we instinctively imagined this could be a “sacred” space for him.

Who was Potocki for you? Insane? An artist? A spy?

I think he was the permanent renegade character who could not be contained by history. He was such a free spirit in his own time, quite remarkable, a man of vast knowledge, languages, journeyed everywhere. And then you suddenly imagine him being sort of holed-up here in this castle. We felt that he would have had to retreat every night to the library to breathe and to mentally travel.

To escape from the trap.

Exactly. When we opened one book in the library – we discovered a page of calligraphic handwriting in arabic and suddenly we looked at each other: could this have been him copying out Arabic letters?

Jan Potocki

Count Jan Nepomucen Potocki (1761 – 1815), Polish nobleman, Polish Army captain of engineers, ethnologist, Egyptologist, linguist, traveler, adventurer and author whose life and exploits made him a legendary figure in his homeland. Outside Poland he is known chiefly for his novel, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

Because definitely he spoke Arabic... It was a sort of magic gift. It could have been merely our imagination. Maybe this was a secret message that he left or forgot – or, was it merely a conceit on our part?

Can your film be called a false documentary? Where lies this fine line between reality and imagination?

Yes. A little Borgesian we think. It has a false edifice. And that one anonymous woman in the film who looks into that one convex mirror –for us it was that chance glimpse into the potential that Potocki was indeed there. And she is looking into that trace, she sees something more. Potocki is resurrected from the mirror through her gaze. That moment of extreme subjectivity was what we were genuinely looking for.

In a few past films you showed your interest in a museum as a symbolic structure, a collection as a symbolic structure. Is it also why you choose Łańcut?

For sure there is the public and the private in any museum. There is the orthodox history, but for us the more fascinating is the private side, more personal side. The aberrational sides of history, the footnotes intrigue us much more. Where, for instance, a museum only does errata like The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles.

Jurassic Technology?

Inventorium of traces, dir. Brothers Quay
Serafiński Studio archives
Yes, it’s a bizarre title… It strangely strikes the imagination. Because it defines what you think it is about but when you investigate it more closely it is rather a museum of imaginary objects, a fiction - quite amazing. Like a false wunderkammer. Nothing can be certified and at the same time everything is certified with names, dates – all that nomenclatura. But after you leave you know that it was all subtly untrue or a perpetration. But by the end you don’t care because you have gone through this great imaginative journey which actually becomes much more real because it courts the unimaginable. Which is, for us, better than going to a museum and reading: “That is fourteenth century,.. thirteen hundred and two…etc. etc. Are you satisfied? Yes, satisfied.”

In Inventory of traces you did not use any puppets constructed especially for the film. Only found objects?

Yes, objects found here in the Institute… (laugh), sorry, we mean MUSEUM!

As in your Institute Benjamenta?

You can also take a place, or a space as an object and you let it speak to you. Because we walked around the Museum to look, absorb and feel things. There is that special word “otherness” that we like very much. It is what the space provides and can offer you.

Is this moment when the documentary footage goes into this strange otherness very important for you?

This slippage is very important for us actually. It was nice just to film people, the substance of things, the daily rituals like the way the staff dust objects, or make these magnificent flower arrangements.

Inventorium of traces, dir. Brothers Quay
Serafiński Studio archives
We remember when Wit first showed us there was a portrait of Potocki in one of the siderooms which was not opened to the public and we said: “Is that the original painting?” And he said: “No, no. The original is somewhere up in the attic.” (laugh) And we were rather surprised and asked to see the original. It is a quite beautiful painting, there is a whole realm there which tells a story. So we thought that he, Potocki, could be viewing and observing the events throughout the whole film, seing everything,- even into the future of his own suicide. And the idea of all those family portraits suspended high up on the wall looking down at these masses of visitors – two thousand more today!!… The idea was that the portraits and objects are watching and enduring the invasion of these people day in day out, week by week, month by month.

I like very much the scene in the film when moon is going up. Magic!

It was shot on one night of the full moon – we just animated it. Just mounting up into the night sky like a slow rocket to the Penderecki music.

What was your idea for the music in Inventory of traces?

When we first heard Penderecki’s music to Saragossa Manuscript (1964, dir.Wojciech Has) in the cinema we were impressed. There are two sides of Penderecki in our film – an official or public side which is light and energetic and then the mysterious side which is a more expressionistic side of music, a sphere of emanations. So we made a choice of extremes. We said – one gives the documentary, the other gives the subjective side of Potocki. Simple as that.

It is the same as the quote that Ravel said that one of his piano concertos was for public sunlight and the other for private shade. And we really thought that the access to the film has to be on this axis: public and private. This is what you can see in the castle in Lancut every single day.

Is it true that a long ago you made a film to Penderecki’s music but it has never been shown?

Yes, this was a Kafka film – Ein Brudermord. It was fantastic music for Insects but Keith, our producer never managed to clear the rights to the music.

Even now?

Now? It has been mythologised as lost. Everybody asked: “Where is this Kafka film?” It has two pieces of music of Penderecki. But it doesn’t matter now. We did it back in 1981. It was right after we graduated from Royal College.

Do you consider art can be a kind of escape from reality? Fugitive form of expression?

Art for us is not a weapon. For sure it can be. But we know that our interests simply lie elsewhere.

You have been called the historians of lost moments from the past.

I think we prefer documenting footnotes or marginalia, for instance, in our Anamorphosis film. The library is a great vessel for time lost. When you suddenly put a focus on it, enlarge it, you realize that this one moment in time is capsuled. Like when Kim Novak points into the rings of the Sequoia tree and says: “Here I was born and there I died” (Vertigo /1958/dir. A.Hitchcock).

It’s a beautiful revelation, that other histories and parallell universes can exist and run simultanously to ours, which of course is pure Schulz.

When we did that little documentary on Janacek, we felt we were fighting for an unknown composer – a person that we deeply admired.

It’s a great loss, all those lost moments in people and history, that we do not know about. So there are these little excavations you can do with art.

It is amazing how we, Poles, can discover the great East European tradition in your films. You come more and more from here. Did you start to speak better Polish than English? Like Potocki who spoke better French than Polish… (laugh)

That would be a lovely idea! This kind of displacement is good in a way, that our own concerns might lead us decisively towards something we are not from, for example at the moment it is Stanislaw Lem.

And what is your new film about?

It’s a short story by Lem called The Mask [Maska] and it’s about a woman automaton that is engineered to assasinate somebody. She is programmed but she’s a simulacrum. In English there are two extra stories appended to the original Robot Stories - they clearly work very nicely together. And it is very interesting that the person who did the translation compares The Mask to the Solaris story. It has the same poetic evocation.

We are trying to do it like a silent film only with Penderecki’s music. In fact the very same musics we used for that earlier Kafka film. The story is quite dark. We will see. It is in the early stages.

What do you expect of a viewer of your films?

The viewer should not only anticipate but also accept something that he or she has not seen before. They have to be open to something that is unequivocably uncharted territory, something that lies between fiction or documentary or whatever. But that line is not verified. And as soon as they realize that it is unverified, the happier they might be. The ambiguous can be a great potential.

Would you like your viewer to be lost in your film?

Inventorium of traces, dir. Brothers Quay
Serafiński Studio archives
Genuinely, but that’s a positive lostness rather than to deceive negatively. For example, we can adore Hitchcock’s films and he IS the master of containing a narrative and making it work in massive amount of levels. One can love that! But there are other films we can watch in much more tentative way and in much more abstract way. Like Guy Maddin, Bela Tarr, Patrick Bokanowski… - they are much more suggestive. It is really up to a personal sensibility.

Between your inspiration one can find Janacek, Schulz, Borowczyk…

By being just a little exclusive you can also set an example. It’s not being hierarchic or pretentious. More importantly for us it is all that remains submerged and hidden that can reveal the fantastic.

Everybody wonders how you can work together, divide the tasks, resolve the disagreements between you two?

Often when you do the animation you have to make the room black: pull all the curtains and make it dark. You have only the film lights up. Everything goes quiet and literally you move to a completely different time realm. Of course very symbolically it is a return to the womb. Two twins in a dark space feeding off one another in silence, you do not have to say anything… Actually we do not work in silence, there is always music from the background for sure.

What kind of music?

It could be some classical station but usually we put music on with something obviously subjective, that lets you so to speak, voyage. But it could be jazz, as long as it’s not just people talking.

With respect to the work ethic it’s symbolically like that. One starts from the left, and the other starts from the right and we meet in the middle. Usually the person who builds the puppet animates it because that person has come to terms with the imagination for that character. That makes sense because you’ve created an inner psyche so you have an idea of the ultimate trajectory that you want to achieve for the character and for the film. Sometimes we need help because there might be three puppets to animate so three of us...


(laughing) Yes, there is the third invisible brother. He works hidden. And of course the work is labourious and intensive.

In animation one creates the whole world from the beginning.

Yes, it is also very crucial. You are creating a universe frame by frame, millimeter by millimeter. Everything you hope for is an escalation of a vision of a way you want to approach the concept of a narrative.

We have a horror of making the puppets too real that they become too much character driven, – they have to become ciphers or symbols of something more. They have to be elusive and enigmatic…. that you are required to read into them.

With puppets the third dimension is so concrete which is why the decor is all powerful so that the figure or object is really lost inside a vast metaphysical space, and is trying to navigate that space and to make sense of it.

So not only the viewer can be lost in your film, but the puppet too?

Yes, I think it creates the enigmatic realm of the journey.

My last question: how come you preserve yourself so well? You do not look your age.

It is because we are twins, cut in half, so we look half the age we are.

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