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INTERVIEW: Coby Sey And George Finlay Ramsay
Patrick Clarke , December 5th, 2023 10:17

Coby Sey and George Finlay Ramsay speak to tQ about their forthcoming collaboration at this year's PAF Olomouc festival, the premiere of a new film documenting an ancient Italian bloodletting ritual

Coby Sey, photo by Ksenia Burnasheva. George Finlay Ramsay, photo by Luke Fowler

This week, the curatorial platform PAF will host the latest edition of its flagship event, PAF Olomouc, which takes place in the city of Olomouc in the Czech Republic from December 7 to 10.

The theme for this year’s edition, the 22nd edition of the festival of film and contemporary art, follows the theme of ‘True Stories’. In an overview which you can read in full here, the festival said: “More than a purely technological analysis of image and sound, we are interested in the subversiveness with which truth can be handled in the realm of moving images and, more broadly, in contemporary art. The subversiveness may come from an unreliable narrator, or from a play of language, confirming our conviction in our steps and our existence – the multiplicity of assurances and their tools. Therefore, as a semantic antipole of the theme and its metaphorical paraphrasing, everything could be labelled a scam.”

The event features a combination of talks, presentations, exhibitions and live music at venues across the city. The lineup includes the New York collective DIS, multidisciplinary artist Colin Self, Czech installation artist Valentýna Janů, as well as a symposium ‘on the life and death of the moving image’ titled Can You Please Send Me A Link, workshops and a dedicated children’s programme.

Among tQ’s most highly-anticipated performances will be a collaboration between filmmaker George Finlay Ramsay and musician Coby Sey, friends and regular creative partners through their involvement with London’s CURL collective (which also features the likes of Mica Levi and Brother May). The festival will see the premiere of Ramsay’s new film Flesh, Wax & Glass, featuring a live electro-acoustic soundtrack by Sey as well as live spoken word narration.

You can see a teaser for the film below, which documents an ancient flagellant ritual still practiced in the southern Italian towns of Nocera Terinese and Verbicaro, where practitioners known as Vattienti shed their blood as an offering to the Madonna Dolorosa. Often sensationalised, Ramsay views the film through the more tender and personal perspective of one specific Vattienti, a lorry driver, whose involvement in the ceremony would turn out to be his last.

To find out more about their creative relationship, the new film, and the pair’s specific plans for this year’s PAF, tQ caught up with Ramsay and Sey via Zoom.

How long have the two of you known each other? Can you give me an overview of your working relationship to this point?

George Finlay Ramsay: I was playing in a band called Business Lunch. Rebecca Salvadori, who’s doing something at PAF as well, put on a gig with us and Brother May at the MOTH Club. Then through that I met Mica [Levi]. I think you were there as well, Coby?

Coby Sey: That’s right. It was 2016.

GFR: So then I became friends with what was known, and I guess still is, as CURL, a loose collective of Brother May, Coby and Mica Levi. Then at some point you guys asked me to join the band in its first iteration with Alpha Maid as well.

CS: It was 24 June, 2018. On a Sunday. We were invited by MODE, who are an events company organised by 33-33 and Ryuichi Sakamoto to play as part of his curated show at The Silver Building in East London. That was the first time that we played together in that formation of CURL and suffice to say it was it was a game changer.

How so?

CS: In terms of how we would approach performing. Whilst we’ve always known that we can push the limits of what we want to do, and where we want to go, [we realised] that we’re literally just as much the audience as the audience is. We were doing something that’s really mercurial and morphing in real time. To be able to do that, and to also be wowed at the fact that we’re doing it… I found that pretty amazing. All these different reference points were working together, but not in a way that feels like it’s been A&R’d or patched up. It was very organic.

Interacting and getting to know each other and working together through CURL led to all these other things, like being invited by George to take part in installations and exhibitions that he put together in Southeast London. We also collaborated on the radio as well; I have a radio show on NTS.

So PAF is the continuation of a longstanding working relationship?

GFR: Yes, but it’s also the most directly we’ve worked together. CURL was a group thing, and quite often quite improvised, and things like the Garden Nights at Camden Arts Centre [curated by Ramsay and featuring Sey] was me inviting Coby to make something of his own within a programme.

Can you give us an overview of the film? How did you come to make work about this flagellant ritual in obscure parts of Italy?

GFR: I have a friend from the area and I’ve been there quite a lot, my friend Giuseppe who lives int his abandoned cinema that his grandfather built into a cliff face… I’ve been back as much as possible, for obvious reasons. He’s a wild beast of a man, we’re very good friends, and he could feel that I would be interested in this thing. He told me about it a while ago but the pandemic was going on so I wasn’t able to go out and also they weren’t doing it, but earlier this year, in Easter I eventually went. Initially it was with the idea of doing a research trip because I didn’t want to just launch into filming, I wanted to feel it out, but actually they’re quite used to it being filmed. It’s not virgin territory; in the film I make a point of that. There’s quite a famous exploitation film from the 60s called Mondo Cane which goes, kind of all over the world seeing ‘crazy stuff’, and it briefly goes to Nocera Terinese, and shows the Carabinieri, the armed police, trying to stop them from doing it.

To bypass that route, you’re focusing on the perspective of one participant, a lorry driver, to give it a more personal edge.

GFR: And also, I hope, a tender one. I think that it’s something that’s very easy to sensationalise because it is very extreme. They get lots of blood out of their legs. I still have quite myriad and complex feelings about it, but I also have some quite simple ones which are that I find it very moving. Obviously it’s a painful thing to do. But for the town it’s so important and they love it so much, and I think there’s something so compelling about doing something mad together. Obviously for them it’s a Catholic thing, but it’s so clearly a syncretic blend of Catholicism and paganism. The only other place they do it in Italy is a town further north called Verbicaro where there’s this mad all-night procession. After they do this flagellant thing, it doesn’t get any less mad. You have teenagers in these hoods that look a bit like what we would think of as Ku Klux Klan but it has nothing to do with that, hitting rattles, there are these kids dressed as angels, almost in drag, a female choir, a brass band. They go from 8pm to 8am, then they arrive back at the church. I’d had a nap in the rental car, I woke up and they were still going.

It’s really not for tourists, there were maybe a few, but it’s really for the town. It’s this thing of preparing for something and then enacting it that is not about financial gain whatsoever, it’s about the gain of the soul. But it’s also very fun; there’s lots of wine and concealed corners in this mountainous town. I think, without wanting to romanticise too much, there’s something that we miss in a post-religious capitalist culture. There are things that are similar-ish in Britain as well. I think it’s something that’s really important for humans.

The ceremony is already quite musical by its nature. Coby, how do you approach soundtracking such a thing?

CS: For me it was important not only to acknowledge those sounds but also to find a way to complement them in a way. George sent me the video in various stages and I’d pick out certain parts of the audio. Sometimes I’d turn them into loops, or use them as an instrument, then I’d turn it into an organ or a synth. So in that way I’m working cohesively, at least in my mind, with those sounds. I didn’t want to overstuff it, I wanted to find a way to complement it, and to find a way to make the sounds that I make, that are synthetic, work in a way that doesn’t sound like they stick out. You know? But also not have them in the background.

GFR: In what you’ve scored there’s something quite tender, which is really what I wanted. To work with you on this makes a lot of sense because of the devotional thing as well; from what I’ve seen of you performing live and what I know of your music, there’s always a quiet intensity to it. It’s not overtly intense, it’s got this kind of quiet focus. And there’s a spiritual side to you as well. I guess we both share something of that.

So take me through the practicalities of how it’s going to work at PAF?

GFR: I think it’d be nice to have room for it being improvised, which is a funny thing when there’s a script, but there’s always the pause button! I’ve made a colour loop of some 16 mil pelican footage, because of a medieval myth about the pelican mother cutting their belly to feed blood to their young – which they don’t do, but it was a kind of idea that medieval people had, and then they associated the pelican with Christ. That’s going to begin it, then the rest will be digital projection with both Coby’s live score and a live voiceover. It’s in this big church, so we’re chatting about using this organ as well.

The idea of a live voiceover sounds particularly interesting. Can you tell us more?

GFR: I’ve not done it before. One of my favourite filmmakers is Peter Greenaway, the Welsh experimental filmmaker. One of his early films is called The Falls, which is quite full on, it’s a three hour mockumentary about this thing called the Violent Unknown Event. There’s all this chat about the potential involvement of the birds, people start speaking new languages, and then about two hours in, you see the narrator in the vocal booth. It’s this really nice moment of, ‘This is the disembodied voice we’ve been hearing the whole time.’ I like the idea of seeing the narrator.

It also sounds like a nice opportunity to step outside the usual dividing lines between filmmaker, performer, musician and so on…

CS: I revel in challenges, personally. Yeah. But… it’s a nice way of also like, catching up with a good friend. Hopefully we’ll do more in the future.

GFR: Totally. I think it felt quite organic to work together in this way. And it’s always a nice present where you’re sweating away and editing and you get some music that suddenly makes the film way better!

Flesh, Wax & Glass premieres at this year's PAF Olomouc, which takes place from Deember 7-10. For more information, tickets and the full line-up, click here.