Isaac Julien

Interview by Chiara Marchini Camia

Isaac Julien, media artist and filmmaker, was born in 1960 in London, where he currently lives and works. His work is represented in the Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou, Guggenheim and Hirshhorn Collections. Isaac Julien is Professor of Media Art at the State University of Design Karlsruhe [HfG]

Chiara Marchini Camia, born 1985, works as a curatorial assistant at the ZKM | Media Museum

Interview held in Karlsruhe, 12 May 2011

Reparational aesthetics

Chiara Marchini Camia (CMC): You have argued that your interest in making multi-screen installations for the gallery space is a way for you to return to Expanded Cinema. You studied with such people as Malcolm Le Grice who were key figures of this movement. What is the significance of the legacy of Expanded Cinema in your work?

Isaac Julien (IJ): Malcolm Le Grice actually came to the opening of my exhibition at the Pompidou in 2005 and he wrote the review for Frieze Magazine. So it was a kind of recognition really of a homage to the kind of practices which were part of Expanded Cinema which I felt that Malcolm Le Grice who had been my professor at Saint Martin’s College had pioneered. In a sense I’ve made my own version of that practice. Because I think that of course the Expanded Cinema of the 1970s or the Expanded Cinema that I see myself involved in are quite different because they utilize different technologies. The question of computerization and synchronization and what can be achieved now is quite incredible. But actually if you look at early works then but even early works by Bruce Nauman in the show that Chrissie Iles did at the Whitney (Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964-1977, 2002) where she showed a lot of experimental installation work. It was absolutely amazing. It was an exhibition that foregrounded Expanded Cinema and what her argument was curatorially was that filmmakers and artists making Expanded Cinema works and installation works were all part of an artistic practice which was somehow lost because the works weren’t documented, they weren’t collected. So I think this exhibition went a long way to providing a trajectory to this kind of practice that I’m involved in.

I’m bringing with me the habits of making film in a more industrial context because I’ve made feature films like Young Soul Rebels (1991) and Looking for Langston (1989). They’re very different films but in each case they’re art films that have narrative aspects in them. Looking for Langston I feel was a narrative work and a work which perhaps I feel ambivalent about because in terms of my main emphasis it has been a more experimental approach to image-making. It has been a more lyrical concentration of trying to develop making pictures and images which have more of a relationship to silent cinema and performance and some forms of video art. My work is a hybrid. I’ve used terms such as “creolizing aesthetics”. I see my installation work as exploring a kind of re-articulation and reconstruction of images made anew through digitalization. I see this question of the revisiting of Expanded Cinema through the question of a reflection or the notion of the carnivalesque in the space of art.

What I mean by that is that there’s a kind of notion of diasporic aesthetics. I’m thinking about the ways in which some of my concerns for certain themes in my work which are connected to the Black diaspora or questions of créolité. I was very struck by the late Edouard Glissant and some of his theories on “creolization” and how you could borrow this to think about aesthetic practices which I’ve been drawing on. So this kind of bricolage approach is something I’m very interested in. And at the same time I’m very much in conversation with people like Vertov I would argue, in terms of thinking about montage and the lyrical approach to editing in my work and thinking about questions of parallel montage. There is a link between my work and the early experiments like Abel Gance’s Napoléon and the way that that utilized three screens and parallel montage effects. To how one might think about extending that in a gallery context. There is an extension of that to the gallery context in a work like Ten Thousand Waves (2010) across nine screens. So I am elaborating on that practice. And I realize that that practice is only made possible in the context of computerization. It’s been through computerization that one’s been able to transform these questions of synchronicity and to use time in a kind of multiple sense.

CMC: For the production of your video installations you have developed a dynamic work method whereby during the editing process you invite an audience to comment on the installation in space. In what way is the “openness” of the work process important for you?

IJ:It’s a double-edged sword because when I make a work I make a work like an artist would make a work. I’m not so concerned with making work where audiences are screen-tested so to speak. What I was looking for in a work like Ten Thousand Waves but also in earlier work like Fantôme Créole (2005) is how can one really explore this idea of the mobile spectator. And in Fantôme Créole what I realized in that piece of work that I did for the Pompidou is that the spectators were meant to be making sense of the montage by having four screens presented in a 360-degree kind of surround exhibition style. Four screens in this kind of structure. Mark Nash describes it better than me. He talks about the two actor-protagonists of the work:

“Vanessa Myrie, who also appeared in Baltimore (2003), and Stephen Galloway are not characters with dialogue with an implied interiority. Rather they seem to link together scenes between the African city and desert scapes, between the Arctic North and arid South. And the lack of narrative connection signals an intellectual proposition concerning issues connecting these spaces as well as Julien’s interest in “creolized” vision. To create new ideas from new points of connection between spaces. The disjunctive juxtapositions inform parallel montage, put the spectator in the position of constructing meaning and through a position of the screens which forces the viewer to change the position to grasp the totality of the presentation, fast challenging the fixed position the single-screen work entails.” [1]

So in other words, the spectators would be forced to make their montage and they would have to turn around and become mobile spectators. But all the spectators did was they grabbed the cushions and seats we’d put into the middle of the space and went right to the back to where they could have a full view of the work. So this was very instructional for me in terms of this idea. But I was interested in Fantôme Créole in the multiple screen projection as a key element for a kind of syntactic articulation of symmetrical and asymmetrical narratives. So utilizing the four screens for me was foregrounding a presentation of a state of “double consciousness”. I’m borrowing this from W.E.B. Du Bois. The instances of hybridization of space, the ecologies of movement from North to South is broken down beyond the simple geographical binaries. So for me in Fantôme Créole the use of four screens was to comment in this context of the globalization the impossibility to draw rigid visual boundaries between territories and that these ideas are translated in Fantôme Créole in this montage strategy by syncopated sound track creating continuities and discontinuities between the separate images projected onto the four screens. Cristina Albu writes the following:

“The four-screen structure to act as an instrument to form four separated screens with a view to contrasting them, infusing diverse images or representations that also provide a visual poetics of exploring contradictory images which refuse easy readings and direct meanings.” [2]

So that was the whole idea. And I would argue that the multiple projection has only been made possible in the gallery through this movement to the digital. That we can only accomplish that attention to detail in that context. So for me this question of “montage of attraction” replaced by an “editing of attractions”. If you like, so taking that Eisensteinian atopian concept of “montage of attraction” and if you like juggling then different juxtapositions which have been made across this kind of parallel montage effect. So that’s what I’m really excited by in the synchronicity which you’re able to achieve through computerization. I think in a piece like Ten Thousand Waves I’ve been able to explore that a bit more. But at some point you do need the spectator to become part of the experiment because you can only see what is really being achieved through your montage if the spectator moves through the space. And so you need determine both how you structure the screens architecturally and how you work with the 9.2 surround sound. Because we actually had to do a 9.2 surround sound dub of the work, which my dubbing masters were getting pretty freaked out about. The sound travels across the nine screens or nine speakers and that in a way is edging the spectator around this piece as well.

CMC: In several of your videos scenes of the making of the video are interlaced with the narrative. I’m thinking of film crew being wheeled along on carts in Fantôme Afrique and the actor Maggie Cheung being hoisted up in front of a green screen in Ten Thousand Waves. What is the significance of these interruptions?

IJ: Initially they were just deconstructive moves, using a deconstructive mode of presentation to highlight the apparatus. Foregrounding the apparatus by exposing the filming process. So the mise-en-scène is something I’ve been trying to exploit in my work and also in my photographs. But I think also something that comes out in Ten Thousand Waves is that in a way the rendering of that creates a lyricism or poetics because in the scene for example, the green screen at the end when all the effects of the martial arts and wire-work that’s been perfected in Hong-Kong cinema and Chinese cinema more generally is exposed. And I never thought really in this moment when we chose that that this lyrical aspect would come out so strongly. So it had another sort of layer. It wasn’t just a deconstructive move but it was also an exposé of this kind of creative tradition in China. It was so interesting. And also what the green screen looked like. The theatricality of the green screen being revealed bit by bit.

CMC: Several of your films have drawn on existing literature as a source for the narrative. For your video installation Ten Thousand Waves at an early stage of the script-writing process you commissioned a poem by the Chinese poet Wang Ping. How did taking a poem as a starting point help you write the script?

IJ: I worked with a poem in Paradise Omeros where I collaborated with Derek Walcott who wrote the Omeros long poem for which he won the Nobel Prize for literature. He’s a St. Lucianer and that’s one of the main reasons why I collaborated with him. I was very attracted to Derek Walcott’s poem because obviously it was a poem which was very much about the sea and his famous poem The Sea is History is another work which also influenced the making and the imagery of Paradise Omeros which was shot in St. Lucia and St. Lucia is the island of my parents’ birth. And so if you like all those kinds of trajectories into making that work which was presented at Documenta 11 where there was a platform around questions of “creolization” and creolité. So it was a project politically as well as artistically. And with Ten Thousand Waves you can see the theme of water develop. With Wang Ping, I commissioned her to write the poem Small Boats and then the Mazu poem. It was very important to think about that work not just as a mere illustration of images but as a spring board. And that is something I’ve been doing in my work since 1989 when I made a film called Looking for Langston when I utilized the poems of Langston Hughes. And in the utilization again the poems were there as a springboard to make images, but not just in an illustrative manner. My entrance into Chinese culture was really through the arts and the poetry of Wang Ping was very important as a spring-board. And also it’s when we were filming with Maggie Cheung in the Guangdong Province that Wang Ping started her last poem for the film which is on Mazu, the Goddess of the Sea. So you have this dialectic work where one is interpolating the work and vice versa.

CMC: As well as incorporating such disciplines as architecture and literature in your work you’ve frequently worked with dance in your videos. In the case of Western Union: small boats the piece even became part of a larger choreography for the stage. What is it about dance that fascinates you?

IJ: Well I think my initial interest in dance stems from the fact that I was always interested in choreography, that I was always involved in the London Youth Dance Theatre from an early age and then basically became interested in trying to think about how that might translate into a choreographic use of the camera. And it was by looking at Maya Deren’s early work and thinking about that in relationship to movement and a kind of lyrical approach to the image that I became interested in the body. I saw the body and its representation through film as a way of embellishing the kind of cinema I was interested in. It was like a form of silent cinema, but for video art. And it was through my collaboration with people like Javier de Frutos on the Long Road to Mazatlán (1999) and Vagabondia (2000) that this kind of representation of the body where it’s not dance film as such but utilizing dance as an expression for something. In Vagabondia it could be trauma for example, and in WESTERN UNION: Small Boats it’s a rearticulation of these questions of migration, and journeying. So it’s usually about journeying and how to use a different form to represent it which might seem even incongruous to the content. So I’m doing that a little bit as well. Because of course it might seem incongruous to use dance as a form of representation to represent migratory journeying from parts of Libya to Sicily.

In a way I’m deliberately using this incongruous approach and creating this kind of tension. In a way the question of choreography very much goes into the ideas around making Ten Thousand Waves. Because it was actually made in conversation with Stephanie Rosenthal, the curator for the exhibition titled Move: Choreographing You, which is at the Haus der Kunst in Munich and is moving to the K20 in Düsseldorf. And the ideas behind that exhibition which is looking at art and dance and movement was that in a way one of the ideas we’re trying to explore is the choreographic movement of the spectator and how the work is edited. So it’s how those translate across mediums. So dance is one version but then it gets translated into the choreographic movement of screens, architecture, the kind of notational, rhythmic aspects of a work and these aspects become part of a vocabulary.

CMC: You’ve mentioned the importance of Derek Jarman and Robert Bresson’s notions of performance for you. Could you explain?

IJ: I was very interested in the notion of non-actors in Bresson. In my early works like Looking for Langston for example there were no professional actors as such. So this idea of models in this non-acting sense I thought was important. And that’s something that I probably applied a little bit to Fantôme Créole because Vanessa Myrie and Stephen Galloway are non-actors (well, Stephen Galloway is a performer, a dancer, a choreographer). So I think with Bresson I was really interested in his use of non-actors because I felt that the history of acting traditions in the English context was something that wasn’t useful for thinking about a more lyrical cinema. Although I think Jarman has at times used an overtly theatrical method of performance in his directing of actors for his work. It’s certainly a kind of non-naturalist or anti-naturalist approach of people like Tilda Swinton, her more Brechtian approach to performance which made the works interesting or resonate in a particular way. And so I’ve been interested in that notion of breaking down the performance aspect which I think is probably something which I explore a bit more in films like Frantz Fanon: Black Skin White Mask (1996). In that film when I worked with Colin Salmon I think there was a kind of Bressonian use of Colin Salmon as someone who is a more open-ended sign. So he’s playing Fanon “in quotation” almost. Those have been my approaches to performance in film. So these different performative approaches are interesting I think in trying to deconstruct performance in one’s works. Certainly there’s lots of room for exploring those ideas further.

CMC: In your video installations like in your films you tackle political issues via a poetic approach. How do you view the link between contemporary video art and the documentary genre?

IJ: Anyone who looks at video art these days would realize that the kind of poetics of the documentary form has been appropriated by video art and I think Anri Sala is at the forefront of doing that and I think Steve McQueen has kind of been doing that as well. So in a way there’s a kind of distilling of the documentary form. And in a way an interest in ethnography you could say and this question of the representation of real world, of real events, “documentary truths”, in quotation of course. Because I think there’s been this question of what video art could become for the 21st century. That in this over-saturated media world that we live in sometimes there’s been a look to video art as representing an ethical position. And I think that’s been something that’s been developed. I’m thinking about WESTERN UNION: Small Boats as elements of it were on the island of Lampedusa. Of course Lampedusa is now seen in the news almost daily because of the Libyan War. But when I was there filming in Lampedusa in 2007 I filmed these boats which were used as a kind of wreckage site which was hidden in the middle of the island. It was like a documentation, I was documenting this scene and in a way using that form of documentation as a certain evidence. So I think there was that role in WESTERN UNION: Small Boats which was being performed and in a prophetic sense now, kind of is seen as representing this political scenario that’s developed, that’s been exacerbated by the Libyan war in Sicily.

CMC: In WESTERN UNION: Small Boats you pick up on Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, a filmic adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel. You tackle the way in which the on the one hand the West watches as other parts of the world are gaining in economic and political power and on the other Fortress Europe tries to push off the wave of migrants from poverty-stricken regions reaching its shores. Your video addresses the contemporary stories of African migrants who cross the Mediterranean Sea to seek a better life in Europe. Is one of the aims of your “expedition trilogy” (which includes WESTERN UNION: Small Boats, True North and Fantôme Afrique) to change the European viewer’s attitude to migration?

IJ: I think in a way Jennifer Gonzalez has written about it where she talks about WESTERN UNION as

“not merely an indictment of globalization and economic inequalities, although it is surely that. It poses a question about destiny and fate, about the desire to fulfill a fantasy that may be finally elusive, about the failed story of migration in which even returning home is impossible. The closing sequence shows shadowed ships sailing out to sea, witnessed by Myrie seated high on the cliffs above. Julien employs an effective sequencing of images to wrap the ships across all three screens. Finally, using the asynchronous parallel vertical pan on two screens, seen previously in the Palazzo Gangi, Julien films a male hand gracefully lifting a wet black shirt out of the sea water by the shore, and silently dropping it back in.” [3]

And I think in that sort of work I’m really interested in how one would make a sort of lyrical artistic cinematic work which would depict a tragedy which of course is not what one would ordinarily do, aesthetically representing these sorts of narratives. And so for me, I’m very interested to focus on this question of violence. But to create images where there would be an impossible identification, so you can only do it through visual allegory. In a way it’s also about the question of genre. If I follow Jennifer’s argument here, “by producing a nearly sculptural, excessive representation of the drowning body, the choreography of the dancers invites us to glimpse a violence we could only otherwise distantly imagine. It is all the more important therefore that we are immersed with their bodies in the projective video environment.” It’s by visual approximation that we’re entering into this question around identification. Because it’s quite difficult of course for us to identify with these positions. In WESTERN UNION: Small Boats there’s an attempt at repositioning the spectator. To view things from a different point of view but to also have this feeling from a different point of view. So that means that you need to form a sort of reparation—”reparational aesthetics”. It’s a kind of reparational position that I want to achieve.

CMC: Žižek talks about nationalism and the hatred of the Other in Freudian terms as having to do with the idea that your nation’s “enjoyment” is being stolen by the Other. Would you say that in so far as they tackle perceptions of Otherness the films in your “expedition trilogy” can be read as a continuation of your earlier films which analyzed race and gender stereotypes?

IJ: There is this sort of question of trying to reposition how one could form possible identification or de-identification. And I do think that in the “expedition trilogy” it’s this kind of disruptive geography that I’m interested in trying to use as a way of rethinking the limits of the world and certainly the Mediterranean space. The Mediterranean modernity is a modernity that has both aspects in it, of both the South and the North. There’s a meeting point there. There are contaminated, contaminating histories of location and dislocation. There’s a movement from works like Territories (1984) which is dealing with questions of riots and the representation of riots in mainland Britain to WESTERN UNION: Small Boats. It’s no longer the local, it goes to the transnational, but then in a way of course Ten Thousand Waves is also an extension of that transnational into you could say trans-global or trans-local, depending on you point of view. But also really at the same time it’s about second-guessing what people think the Other should do. Because of course I’m deliberately trying to upset the binaries to do with the kind of work people might expect me to make by provocatively making a piece of work on China. Somebody could say you’re following the tides of globalization. But I’m also trying to say that there can be this identification across political affiliations and identities. And so, it’s also about rewriting the way that someone might view a work that I might make about the Other. And again of course that applies to making a work like Derek, working with people like Tilda Swinton. In these works I’m trying deliberately to disrupt that authoring of work that’s been made in a predictable sense that you would make a work like that, because you look a certain way.

CMC: In a 2009 interview you mentioned that you wanted to “do something completely different (…) a project with white or heterosexual characters.” Are you working on such a project?

IJ: I am indeed. I’ve worked with heterosexual characters quite often. Ten Thousand Waves is such a work, and so is Young Soul Rebels. And so, I think that’s nothing new. But also there’ve been white protagonists in my works like WESTERN UNION: Small Boats. Two white performers and that’s deliberate as well. Because I wanted people to think that this could be someone from Poland, or someone from Eastern Europe. So I think it’s important that it wasn’t always couched in those kinds of codes of black and white. And obviously similarly in a work like Derek, Derek Jarman being an ostensibly upper-middle-class film-maker. He was gay of course so you could make the connection, and I knew him as well. In my new work it’s really about the movement of capital. In that sense the question of movement of capital, be it in Saudia Arabia, or in Korea, in parts of London, the question of moving across predictable and unpredictable categorizations, spaces, subjectivities, is a key element in that new work. And that, really, is something which I think is also connected with coming to grips with where we are currently situated.

[1] Mark Nash on Isaac Julien’s Fantôme Créole on www.isaacjulien.com ^
[2] Cristina Albu, “The Indexicality of the Triptych Video Constructions in Isaac Julien’s Installations,” in: Veit Görner and Eveline Bernasconi (eds.), Isaac Julien. True North. Fantôme Afrique, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2006, pp. 73-80. ^
[3] Jennifer A. González, “Sea Dreams: Isaac Julien’s Western Union: Small Boats,” in: Saloni Mathur (ed.), The Migrant’s Time: Rethinking Art History and Diaspora, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, 2011. ^



Long Road to Mazatlán (Isaac Julien/Javier de Frutos, 1999), in:
Future Cinema. The Cinematic Imaginary after Film
ZKM | Medienmuseum, 16.11.2002. – 30.03.2003

Comments are closed.