CC: Your three-screen projection Playtime is currently exhibiting at MUAC in Mexico City, alongside Kapital, a two-screen work on monitors. The Kramlich Foundation, who actually commissioned the piece, will likely be showing the seven-screen version of Playtime in San Francisco towards the end of year. These ‘sister’ works, Playtime and Kapital, look at the global economic crisis and the notion of ‘capital’ as being elusive, immaterial and abstract, and asks what our relationship to it really is. How did the ideas behind these works begin to form?
IJ: Playtime and Kapital really began with a question that I have been haunted by for a number of years, and in a sense I am still: what drives people to cross continents in search of a better life? In 2007, I made a multiscreen film installation called Western Union: Small Boats about what has been named the ‘Sicilian holocaust’; a term describing the enormous casualties that come from boats continually trying to cross the Mediterranean from Africa. In a sense, the better lives that these people end up with are not in this world but in the after life, or in heaven. The phenomenon that we see today of a refugee crisis on a colossal scale was something that gripped me then as the condition of our globalised world. This is a world where technologies are celebrated in terms of their speed, but the circulation of capital and economy creates boundaries and pathways that cause people to gravitate or flow towards its center. In this age of the Anthropocene - the harsh reality is some people or bodies seem not to matter! In 2008, the world saw the greatest financial crash since the Great Depression. Capital had failed us. Again. Then in 2010, I was struck by a tragedy in Morecombe Bay in the north of England where 23 Chinese cockle shell pickers from the Fujian province lost their lives from the wrathful force of the icy Atlantic tide whilst working into the night. That work became Ten Thousand Waves. And so the same answer to my question about the search for a better life boomerangs back to me: capital.
So, the question of who controls it and who loses their agency as a result becomes more pertinent that ever. I began listening to the stories of those in my life that too were affected by the life force of capital, recorded them and built dossier after dossier of research. A friend of mine who is an artist lost his house and family after the Icelandic financial crash. My house help had to leave the Philippines for the Middle East in order to support her family back home. The art world, and its markets, the very industry I was part of, had been completely affected by the financial crash.
Later, in the summer of 2012, my first step in making this new work was through a public discussion and screening, “Choreographing Capital,” at the Hayward Gallery in London. I invited the renowned geographer and intellectual David Harvey, the author of ‘The Enigma of Capital’, to be my guest. This conversation became the backbone of Kapital, a two-screen video work related to Playtime: which takes form as a seven, three screen or single screen work.
CC: As an artist and filmmaker, what would you say is your relationship to capital? In a sense, what I am trying to ask with that question is what does it mean to create an artwork about capital? After all both art and the artist themselves exist in, and are proliferated by, an industry. An industry that is just as controlled and affected by markets, corporations and neoliberal policies than any other.
IJ: Yes, of course it is. As an artist and filmmaker, I of course have my own relationship with capital. The reality is someone who works in ‘moving image’ and film, and on a large scale, as I do, simply cannot work without access to capital. In the early 1980s, when I was one of the founding members of Sankofa film and video collective, we were able to realize our ideas through funds or capital raised from grants awarded to us from the British Film Institute and commissions from Channel Four Television. Later, when I moved into the art world so to speak, the system straddled both funding and patronage, but the thing desired in order to make work was still: capital. Folks sometimes ask why I stopped making films; I usually reply that I never did… I just make them for different spaces! Although, part of that, alongside the promise of artistic autonomy in the context of the museum and gallery world, has to do with how I can fund my work: again, capital. And so making a work about the source itself feels more urgent and necessary than ever. “It’s urgent!” as my good friend Hans Ulrich Obrist would say! As I could not film the thing itself, capital, I wanted to film its shadow so to speak: its effects, its movements, and the social relations it creates. I wanted to do this by utilizing the position I have. The industry of art and the ambivalent role of capital in the contemporary art market thus become chapters within themselves in Playtime. They take form in the narratives of three protagonists in particular, a bête noir art dealer played by James Franco, an artist, vulnerable and exposed, who loses his home after the financial crash and a real auctioneer whose character mythically portrays how through speech and gesture, capital can be produced.
Each character in Playtime is based on someone I know. Sometimes a character has been changed drastically, or is an amalgamation of more than one person, but in genesis they were all portraits of my friends or colleagues. In this way they are all intrinsically linked. What links them to me and to each other is capital. They might be people I work with, people who collect or sell my work, or people I employ. As a cast of intertwining protagonists, they are a reflection of an economic order, and so allow us to see the cumulative effects of capital, on individuals as well as society.
CC: The Hungarian philosopher Gáspár Miklós Tamás compares capital to the divine, at least in the challenges it poses to attempts at representing it.
IJ: Yes, for Tamás the Soviet painters who took up abstraction in the 1910s were like the medieval Russian icon painters: both were wrestling with a problem of picturing the invisible. What does something look like when it can’t be pictured-when invisibility is silent, so to speak? The problem with capital, as any critical theorist will tell you, is that it is abstract. For the artist it is difficult to image convincingly.
So on the one hand post- financial crisis we see a renewed interest in Marx, with thinkers in diverse disciplines consulting his analysis of the capitalist mode of production and using it as a map that might tell us where we are, how we got here, and how we can get out; and on the otherhandtherearetheoreticalvoicesexaminingtheideathatcapital is essentially invisible. This feels similar to the way the image has become immaterial in moving-image work today - the picture does not exist in digitalization.
CC: Do you mean the image becomes immaterial in the sense that in the last few years, film as a medium has been under threat by digital technologies? Playtime and Kapital were shot digitally as opposed to on film like your other works. Why was that?
IJ: In their immateriality, these digital technologies that we now rely on reflect something of what I feel is resonant in David Harvey’s ‘The Enigma of Capital’. They also seem to be catching up with the free and deregulated flow of modern finance. It is almost as if simply by making work with the most up-to-date equipment, one mirrors the invisible mechanisms of capital.
In a sense, the cinematic look of Playtime mimics the visual grammar of the very message it seeks to present and critique; it’s heady, lush, surrealistic, sleek, and futuristic as a comment of the cultural and visual industries of capital itself. Your perception of fiction, non-fiction, and documentary film weaves and intertwines. Operating in complicity with a genre I critique is something I’ve explored in earlier works. Baltimore, by example, a three-screen film installation I made in 2003, uses Blaxploitation as both style and critique. The two are not mutually exclusive.
CC: Can I ask about multiscreen installations? You are seen really as a pioneer of this kind of filmic practice and form in the art context. How does this translate in these particular works?
Of course, if one looks back at my works in a chronological order, there is a sense of an escalation in the number of screens. But this gradual increase in scale-from one screen to two, to three, to five, and so on-has always been in service to ideas and theories: film as sculpture, film and architecture, the dissonance between images, movement, a montage of attractions across space and the idea of the mobile spectator.
One important aesthetic touchstone in my research and how I developed this element of my practice was Eisenstein’s notes for his proposed film of Das Kapital, which he began writing while editing his film October in 1928. These writings essentially revealed to me that Eisenstein was less interested in an attempt to picture capital than what was actually a filmic exercise in dialectical thinking-that is, in montage.
As artist and filmmaker I have always been interested in montage techniques. The parallel editing in my multiscreen works, for instance, allow for another dimension to be brought into play. Working with my editor Adam Finch, I could montage spatially as well as temporally to create a complex system of associations, but without the didacticism of Soviet montage techniques. Instead of spoon-feeding certain arguments to the spectator, I see multiple screens and longer shots as a manner of creating many viewpoints and many subjectivities- hopefully a new way of experiencing cinema even.
Playtime is a work that has a bricolage narrative element - in a sense it works more classically as a film than say Ten Thousand Waves. Creating a migratory experience for the spectator therefore becomes really important for me here as we move from city to city, from London to Dubai to Reykjavík - it builds on the concept of movement that echoes the nature of capital itself. As a viewer at times your attention may shift from screen to screen. It dissipates and reignites in the different images you encounter. So for the multiscreen to work, the space you are in is made to feel entirely fluid, but still has a certain tension. This reflects so much in the very thing I want to find some iteration for - the global flow of capital, it’s fault lines and it’s many cracks. Playtime is also in some instances is deliberately an uncomfortable work where we can witness the weight of capital bearing down on some individuals, such as with the maid in Dubai, or where capital was stopped in its tracks during and after the crash- I chose to show this in Iceland, and not forgetting those who benefit entirely in this - after all, I too need to make a living.
Photograph of Isaac Julien © Graeme Robertson