When art starts at home | Saskia Boddeke

During her visit to the Valletta Film Festival last week, Dutch multimedia artist Saskia Boddeke sat down with TEODOR RELJIC for a chat about The Greenaway Alphabet – a stylised documentary structured like an alphabet and recording the intimate, whimsical and insightful conversations between her young daughter Zoe and her filmmaker husband, Peter

Multimedia artist Saskia Boddeke: “I knew that if I gave Peter any control of it at all, I would lose all control”
Multimedia artist Saskia Boddeke: “I knew that if I gave Peter any control of it at all, I would lose all control”

While I certainly don’t want to make this question – or indeed, this interview – all about your husband, the celebrated British filmmaker Peter Greenaway, the documentary certainly makes one bubble up with questions while they’re watching it. Perhaps the most niggling of which has to do with how this film is very much a family affair. What led you to make a documentary focused on your husband and daughter?

The project actually started, so to say, when our daughter Zoe was very young – as young as around five years old. So she was just about beginning to understand the world around her, and to grasp at what adult conversations could mean. Then, there’s the fact that Peter was never really a conventional parent. He wouldn’t read out children’s books to her, but he would make art projects with her. Her response was always fascinating – because as you can expect, she had no hangups or preoccupations about these things, and was very open. Their conversations were really interesting to listen to, and I could see that she was helping Peter look at things in a different way, because she was not addressing ‘Peter Greenaway, The Artist’, she was just talking to ‘Peter’, and she had developed her own relationship with the artwork.

And the alphabet was a part of this relationship – they would recite the alphabet and come with their own ‘entries’ every night before bed. This went on for something like ten years, and it was a process that was entirely theirs – it took no prompting from me.

So the two of them certainly made for an interesting combination – enough for me to pitch the documentary to a producer.

That was going to be my next question, actually – how did the idea for the film edge closer to becoming a reality?

So one day I approached a producer in Holland and I pitched it to him, essentially – I told him that it would be nice to do this, that it would show viewers a different side to Peter. They liked the idea but there was no funding for it at the time. But he approached me again later when it became more viable... and it was actually something of a ‘now or never’ scenario. Given that Zoe had just hit puberty, we felt that if we waited any longer the dynamics between her and Peter would no longer be as interesting – as it stood, there was an interesting conflict in their relationship, but also a really strong connection.

What I’d also like to say is that I’ve always wanted to make the film for Zoe first and foremost. Because her dad is much older than average, and also because I think she hasn’t quite grasped the dynamics of his work. So that was my drive, really. And being familiar with my previous work, the broadcasters were confident of being able to come with something that would resonate emotionally, and that other parents would be able to relate to it. That’s how the whole thing came together, despite the fact that many people thought I was being somewhat naive in putting this together – “A film about Peter Greenaway?! Have you lost your mind?!”

Now of course, Peter is your husband, but what’s also very much relevant is that you are frequent collaborators, and the documentary lays bare your processes side by side. Could you talk a little bit about this?

Yes, the interesting thing is that there’s a key contrast at the root of it all. Because Peter loves working with systems, whereas I’m much more associative in my work – the systemic approach just doesn’t fit me. I know this to actually be one of my strengths as an artist, and I think that this is why Peter and I make for such a good creative team.

So even in the film... only those who pay extra attention would notice that I actually stop bothering with the alphabet after the letter ‘G’. Sticking to the device for the duration of the entire film just felt so boring to me! And the more organic approach gave us the freedom to play around with the beginning and the end of the film a lot more.

Still from The Greenaway Alphabet
Still from The Greenaway Alphabet

Were there any parameters that either Peter or Zoe placed on you before you started filming?

No, none. Because I knew that if I gave Peter any control of it at all, I would lose all control. And the film may look seamless now, but at the beginning it was something of a struggle to get going because he wasn’t taking it all that seriously. I needed to know when to catch him off-guard, like in the morning, when he is quite mellow and relaxed, just as he’s waking up.

The only agreement we had was that they could see a rough edit of the film after it’s done, at which point they would be free to tell me if they wanted me to take anything out that they weren’t comfortable with. This didn’t go quite as planned as at some point down the line, Zoe caught on to the fact that I was receiving footage from the editor during the evenings, so she peeked into my computer and started watching it while I was cooking one day. This caused something of a crisis at home as Peter got really jealous about Zoe seeing the film before him... but when I finally sat them both down to watch it, he relaxed.

There were some minor edits we made to Zoe’s contributions – she didn’t like herself in certain scenes, and felt she was too forceful, and of course I had to respect that so I toned that down. So yes, I offered to take out anything that they would have objected to, but I only gave them the last word after the rough cut was

If we can sidestep the film for a bit and talk about your career as a whole... You define yourself as a ‘multimedia artist’ – which is a term that encompasses so much. Why did you choose to define yourself as such?

It’s a definition I’ve adopted over just a year ago... and it’s simply because I do so many different things! Like for example, I do opera, but even there I use a lot of projections. I incorporate light in a very direct way, as well as smell and touch. And I also do digital art – in fact I have an alter-ego called Rosa Borchovski which I created through the Second Life interface. And I also create immersive installations. So it got to a point where it became difficult to even begin describing what I do – even if I’d win an award in one field, I would then be moving on to work on something that’s in a completely different genre or format. So settling under the ‘multimedia artist’ umbrella felt like the best way forward!

Do you think that such a multidisciplinary approach is particularly relevant to this day and age – with its varied and sometimes fragmented platforms?

I think about this a lot when I consider, for example, the immersive installations that I do and augmented reality initiatives, for example – which, to me, simply feel like a poor man’s version of the former. I love doing immersive installations – even if they’re not always viable because they’re so expensive – because they give a total experience and a keen sense of freedom to the viewer. A recent one we did in Russia had screens placed on a large towers, and people could just wander through them at their own pace, and craft the story their own way. You can spend thirty minutes or three hours at the venue and still have a significant experience of it either way. Of course, there is a degree of manipulation from my end – I do create a basic sense of beginning, middle and end, for example – but the rest of it is really up to the audience to decide. And ‘shaking up the building’ in this way really excites me.

Okay, you have to tell me about your alter ego...

(Laughs). Sure... well, that’s somewhat tied to the way my life and career began to change after I’d met Peter. I was 32 at the time, and very much a stubborn artist who wanted to carve a niche for herself. But soon I’d realised that my name began to disappear into his. This caused me no small amount of grief, as you can imagine, and it goes on to this day. Even as we were out promoting The Greenaway Alphabet... in one particular territory, they promoted a screening as a film ‘about Peter Greenaway... by his wife’. They didn’t even bother to mention my name! So I was always sensitive to this – I knew it was a reality of the industry. And I created Rosa as a way to counteract that – to disappear into her instead of Peter. But after a while, people began to associate her with Peter as well, so I decided to let her go for a while...

Have you ‘retired’ from Rosa for good, then?

Actually, no – I’m thinking of reviving her again for another project soon enough! But even independently from Rosa, I think that the Second Life interface is such a great facility for me. In fact, it’s become both a workshop and an exhibition space for me. I can test out installations and performances there at no cost, and I still have an exhibition going there that’s visited by at least 50 people each day – which is quite amazing. Especially given how open and democratic it all is – it doesn’t cost anyone any money, and it’s connected me with so many great artists from all over the world that I’ve since collaborated with.

My approach with it is to always go beyond the ‘gaming’ paradigm with it, to prove that you can have a serious art experience in this medium. It’s also something of a challenge to deal with financially, since you can never really sell anything you make on Second Life – as opposed to, say, a painting that you do in the ‘real’ world – but the affection I have for it really keeps me going.

Would you say that there is any connection between your other work and The Greenaway Alphabet in particular?

You know what... I really don’t know. The Greenaway Alphabet is certainly different. It’s my first film, for a start. And while I’ve very much enjoyed the process of making it and touring with it – we’ve had quite a lucky run, and scored the opportunity to travel all over with it – I still feel very much like something of an outsider.


The Greenaway Alphabet was screened at this year’s edition of the Valletta Film Festival. Boddeke, Peter Greenaway and their daughter Zoë were present at the special screening of  the film on June 9 at Pjazza Teatru Rjal, Valletta