Steve McQueen and Donna DeSalvo in Conversation
April 29, 2016: Artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen speaks about his work with Donna De Salvo, Deputy Director for International Initiatives and Senior Curator at the Museum. For the exhibition Open Plan, McQueen created a newly expanded version of his work End Credits, which presents documents from the FBI file kept on the legendary African-American performer Paul Robeson.
DDS:Welcome, and Steve, thank you so much for agreeing to engage in this conversation.
DDS:I actually thought we would start kind of where we are, in a way, and being by just launching into a discussion about End Credits since that’s the most current thing, and then talk perhaps about some of you earlier work, some of the different kind of – oh, don’t, you look worried – OK, some of the different sort of cinematic techniques that evolved in your work over time, how the crossovers happened with the feature films, and sort of go through some of the points that I think, I find, especially compelling and so deeply original in your work. So I hope all of you – oh, gosh, where am I pointing, there we go, OK. So this is, I don’t know where this installation actually took place. Was this at the Schaulager or was the first time –
SM:That’s the Schaulager, yeah, that was 2013. Well, the project started – it was just interesting, of course, what was interesting, Paul Robeson. The first time I heard about Paul Robeson was my neighbor, Milton. He was a guy who always used to put sort of newspaper cuttings in my door of whatever. I mean he was a very interesting guy. I think he was just very interested in me, and one day I got this booklet through the door, and I opened it, and it this black guy, American, this black guy on the front cover, and Welsh miners celebrate Paul Robeson’s birthday, anniversary. I was like, who’s this, a black American in Wales? Miners? So I didn’t know who this guy was, and through just sort of researching and finding out who he was, and Milton told me who this guy was. It was becoming very fascinating, and that was when I was about fourteen. And, of course, finding out more about him and who he was, was interesting, it was just fascinating to me that no one, I didn’t know who he was, even at fourteen. I thought, you know, he’s such a major figure. And I just wanted to sort of find out a little bit more about him, and obviously I discovered these FBI files.
DDS:Yeah, I’m curious about how, you know, you got to the files. My understanding is they actually were online.
SM:Yeah, they were online, and classified documents online. And, as you do, you sort of have these documents, and I got them enlarged like that, and of course I was scrolling up, as you do, next document, and somehow it scared me because sometimes you’ve got these things which were very blacked out, you know, dedacted [redacted], and there was just, they emerged from the screen almost like a whale sort of from the sea. It was very scary at night, and this thing emerging, and I was scrolling up. It obviously just fascinated me, this sort of process of viewing a document. Because, you know, no one here is going to sort of read all the documents on Paul Robeson. But what you do, the whole idea of scroll, and the end credits in a movie, is you glimpse one or two things, you catch one or two things, there’s time to catch things as they pass. And the whole idea of movement and catching things, it was fascinating, as well as obviously as the audio.
DDS:I mean, I think, you know, it’s interesting – this is a great photograph actually of Robeson that’s in the collection and on view in the galleries – and I mean Robeson was such an extraordinary figure in American culture. I’m not certain a lot of people now know who Robeson is frankly, or, nor know about the, you know, in a sense, you know, the government’s torture of him. I don’t know what else to call it really. I mean, even two years after his death, the FBI was still compiling files, why I don’t know, but that continued, and on his wife as well.
SM:Yeah, I mean, again, I think it’s obviously the influence, how his legacy will spread, you know, containing it, sort of finding out who has been influenced by what’s going out. I think that obviously they were scared, they were very scared of his presence. I mean, you know, until 1978, two years after he died. It’s, yeah, it’s odd to say the least.
DDS:You know, it’s interesting because I remember several, a few years ago, meeting you in Amsterdam, and talking about doing something at the Whitney, and we talked, actually one of the things you brought up was End Credits. I think it was in the context of another project that I was interested in doing that had to do with systems and structures, so I mean that’s a few years ago so it’s quite interesting that it’s come full circle in this way. And you could you talk a little bit about it, because for this installation, as opposed to the one at the Art Institute, you decided to also expand the files, you added more content here for the Whitney.
SM:Yeah, I mean what I had before was eleven hours of audio, and there’s five sort of voices. I think there’s two male and three, no, sorry, two female – no, actually it’s four – two male, two female. And we did, we had eleven hours when I sort of showed it in 2013. We added ten now, so there’s twenty-one hours. I mean, when we finally finish it, hopefully this year, there will be seventy-two hours of audio. That will be the whole compiled –
DDS:That would be the totality of the files?
SM:Yeah, exactly, the size of the files, the whole compilation.
DDS:And you’ve always used the same people who are reciting?
SM:Yes, always use the same people, so we obviously were running to sort of fix that this year. I mean, it just costs a lot of money, I didn’t realize how much it cost, so we had to stop, we ran out of money, and that was the idea, we didn’t do it all in one go. And, of course, time, I mean it’s a real (?) labor situation. And just one of those things where the documents were just so horrid, and when you listen to things they talk about his wife and who she is, her skin color, you know, who they have contact with. You know, it’s a fascinating document of what was going on, you know, and of course there were documents in the Thirties as well, but we only got one from, this starts from ’41 to ’78, but it starts very early. There’s this whole idea of conspiracy, letters, people being friends giving like postcards. It’s incredible, it’s all like surveillance.
DDS:I mean and some of it’s quite banal, too. I mean literally coming to this certain place, I mean there’s actually no reason to be following them when you read some of the material.
SM:Yeah, I think one of the things I love the best is the banality of sort of the, even this sort of dedacted [redacted] and certain sort of scribbles we talk about, and it’s given equal power. As a document, as a piece of evidence, one describes the paper, the crossed-out confidential, you know, Roman numeral, blah, blah, blah. That for me was very important in a way to sort of address the whole document.
DDS:It’s interesting because I remember a filmmaker once saying – it was Emile de Antonio – in a film he made where he talks about the Freedom of Information Act, and he said, yes, there’s freedom but there’s not always information. I mean, because the redacted portions of it obviously are, one will never know what was in all of those. I’m curious when, given that this is in the context of Open Plan, and then we’ll move on to talking a little bit about some of the earlier, but the thoughts that you had when you saw this huge space – because I remember something very distinct that you said, which I was so delighted to hear. You said, this is a cinematic space, the framing of the windows, and just to see this extraordinary 18,000 square foot space without columns.
SM:Well I think the space is about people in the space, definitely. I mean, it reminds me of sort of an Antonioni movie in a way. It has a situation where, you know, the space and the people, and the whole idea of this vista, just this panoramic sort of window. And, for me, growing up in Europe, it’s very weird when you live in the United States, in New York rather, and you’ve living on the 15th floor or 21st floor, you’re looking out, it’s very strange, because what happens is that you become, it’s almost like a magnifying glass or a telescope being turned the other way. You become the one that’s sort of being sort of examined or looked at, or spied on in a way because your perspective from the world, and you are sort of given this sort or, this sort, how can I say, this sort of kind of perspective. You are in the context of what you’re looking at, and you become so small. It’s kind of weird, it’s very, it gets in your head. So just to see that happening in that space with the people, it’s very, it has a very interesting sort of feel to it.
DDS:New York is increasingly filled with building where people are basically on view. That’s a whole other issue, that’s a whole other conversation I think in a way. Let’s, you know, maybe just to go a little bit back now in history – is that, if you’re OK with that – of course, this is Bear, which is a very, very early film, video of yours, and I think one of the ones that you did when you were actually still in college, no?
SM:Yeah, last year. Bear, my god, that’s a while back, 1993. What’s the question?
DDS:Well, I’m curious in terms of the –
SM:No, I need (inaudible), I just don’t want to bore anyone.
DDS:Well, we an jump over that one, but I mean these sort of early beginnings of a certain point of view that comes about in terms of the camera itself as a eye, if you will, as something that inserts itself into the space, and a power behind it as well.
SM:I mean, the questioning, a lot of questioning. I mean, these, again, it was a situation where I wanted to have a situation of two equals, and it couldn’t be, you know, the physicality of those two equals. So the sort of whole idea of, how can I say, it’s almost like having two (inaudible) situation, but also seeing the physicality of it. There was no sound, so I wanted to have the whole sort of emotional sort of journey as such from sort of, you know, aggression to sort of intimacy to whatever. And, again, you know, as a young man, you just sort of, you’re moving the camera around, you’re sort of investigating or experimenting, and just wanting to sort of, you know, I mean to come down to this sort of bare bones of things really, and that was it.
DDS:Was that a sort of natural thing for you in terms of using, like given the idea of, you know, I know you came out of art school, and so you also made paintings at one point, and –
SM:Yeah, I mean again I think that’s more of a sort of evolution from the crayon to the paintbrush to the camera. I mean, always doing what was obviously with a perspective, but that was evolution, yeah. And, again, dealing with that kind of, those perspectives. I ended up with a camera because for me it was the sort of the thing, I think what it was is I couldn’t be in a bloody studio on my own. I could never, the whole idea of (inaudible) and this canvas and paint on my own, it would just drive me bloody nuts. I think it’s to do with that sort of communication with people, that conversation, that sort of being involved physically in a band, if you will, was very much sort of important to me.
DDS:Well, these early films, though, it’s interesting because you appear in many of these early films as well. So was that just because you were an available actor?
SM:I was cheap. Well, I’ll be honest, I’ll tell you a funny story. I wasn’t meant to be in Bear. I got this guy to come; he didn’t turn up. That was the truth, and then I got my kit off, and said, you know, let’s roll the camera, let’s go for it, so sometimes it happens, yeah.
DDS:And this one, of course, Deadpan, which is the one that, you know, has that reference to Keaton but also something, and this idea that you talk about, about the expressivity of the face, which is so interesting, and the idea of – and I don’t know if I have, oh, we’ll come to that one in a minute – but I have a couple. This PowerPoint drives me a little bonkers, but let’s see, oh, there it is, OK. I’ve thought a lot about your talking about that idea of the face, and the expression of the face, and also the idea of, because many of the early films are silent films, and so much in Keaton’s work the silent, everything has to be told. And I think we’ll come to that in, there’s a clip from Shame, which just has a soundtrack but has absolutely no dialogue, everything is told.
SM:Is it the threesome?
DDS:No, I don’t think I went – I might have gone with a G rating. I mean, I’m sorry about that.
SM:OK, I’m sorry, I apologize. I really thought it was that because last time we did, movie on stripping. I want to go deadpan, I cannot.
DDS:So, I was going to go back to this, again, you’re appearing here, but this is from the Schaulager, and I think one of the things I find so fascinating with End Credits is this kind of sculptural construct that you’ve made, and the way these works, you know, moving into the space, you know, in that sort of way for you. I mean, the conventional filmmaker idea of the screen as being the only way to go. How did it come about, this idea of even making, you know, a sculptural space in a sense that is this totality – sound, the body – in the context of all of this?
SM:Well, I think film is sculpture. I always thought of myself as a sculptor just because you’re dealing with three-dimensionality. You’re dealing with weight, you’re dealing with scale, and perspective. And I always thought of myself as a sculptor.
DDS:And the viewer’s relationship to it?
SM:Oh, for sure, that’s, you know, again, the great example is obviously upstairs, where you are as a viewer in comparison obviously to the work. It’s very, very important.
DDS:It’s interesting to watch people now, up in the space.
SM:I mean, it’s all about the people. I mean, of course, it’s for the images we see, but it’s just for the perspective. You see them sort of cut through the image in a silhouette and so forth, you’re present with other people. Again, that’s why cinema is so interesting because that’s why I don’t think it will ever die because you always have to be involved, you go to cinema to see a movie with other people. This is communion, commune experience. It’s very important.
DDS:I was thinking a lot about also how works that you’ve made – this is Drumroll, which is an early piece that you made I think in Lower Manhattan?
SM:Yes, yes, yes, yes.
DDS:So New York and, I mean it’s interesting, Shame was filled in New York, and the whole interest in –
DDS:American in general or New York in particular? I’m not certain New York is like the rest of America, but that’s a whole other –
SM:The question is what specifically, please? I just, I could go so many ways.
DDS:I think it’s an observation, so we don’t have to make it a question. But I was just sort of curious about, you know, also this idea of situating your space because, for Drumroll, you are the one walking through space and creating this work. So, again, it’s this sort of exploration of situating yourself in the world in this kind of way.
SM:Yeah, and what I, it’s, what I wanted to do was I wanted to be totally, have a situation where I didn’t have to think, all I want to do is roll this thing. How I rolled it, I mean it’s a situation often I talk to actors about in a certain sense of how one, I, you know, as actors I want them to some point in time become almost like a sphere. So whatever they do, however they roll, it’s perfect. Whatever they do, they can’t make a mistake.
DDS:Is that about a sort of sense of embodiment and a –
SM:Yeah, I still call them (inaudible) acting and artwork, but it’s a sense of being in a state where – I mean, again, I can only talk about it in this way, for example, if you’re a bandleader or you’re a musician like Miles Davis, and you have, you write So What. So within So What there’s harmony and melody. So Cannonball Adderley or whoever, you know, can improvise within the harmony and the melody. They can’t go out of it, they have to stay within it. They can do whatever they want within that, and that is a situation where you could roll, you could do whatever you want. There’s freedom but within the structure of the harmony and the melody. And I think what I was interested in, in Drumroll, was a situation of being in the city of New York at the same time as having the situation where I didn’t, I wasn’t having a camera, and I wasn’t be so studied, or having to focus. I wanted to be part of the city, to roll, to travel, to maneuver through the city.
DDS:So is it a dissolution in a sense of the lens and a kind of melding in some way?
SM:To some extent, also the whole idea of just traveling, to move. It’s a drum, it’s an oil drum. It’s sort of, you know, the economy, the whole idea of a price of a barrel of oil. It’s just the whole idea of this motion, what makes, you know, this, I don’t know, I wouldn’t even say the world go around –
DDS:So there’s a symbolic, well, no, it is, it’s the lubricant that makes the world go around.
SM:Yeah, I suppose, it’s a dangerous one, it can ignite at any time I suppose.
DDS:Well, that’s very true, that’s very true. So, you know, I think – this PowerPoint will drive me made, but I’ll do my best – I mean, I was curious, some of the influences you’ve talked about along those lines is someone like Bruce Nauman. I think you’ve talked about Nauman and Yvonne Rainer, and I wonder if you could just, you know, how you came to their work and how you saw the dialogue between what they were doing and that how you, what you brought from that into your work.
SM:I think with people, Yvonne Rainer and Nauman, was this whole idea of versatility, you know, I think more than anything it was just about possibility.
DDS:Of that you could what you want to do.
SM:Yes, absolutely, and, you know, I just love the whole idea of, you know, with Nauman, it’s just this, it’s just so much about sort of just this and recognizing it.
DDS:The psychological part of it, too, physical and psychological.
SM:Yeah, but I just, the versatility, the possibility, and what’s possible. And, again, for me (inaudible) I was a kid obviously imaging one’s gone through. It’s like you have to pass through so many things in life to sort of come out and be yourself. You know, Nauman as well as, Jimi Hendrix was one of them, you know what I mean, it’s a passage. And it was very interesting to me because with the possibility of objects and material and what you could do with to get a specific kind of result.
DDS:I mean, it’s so interesting because I think of, the thing that in so much of your work this, also there’s the movement, but then there’s this, also this incredible sustained close-up that takes place. I mean, I think of Empire, so I, since I’m a Warhol person I’ll throw it in there. But, you know, where you have like with Girls, Tricky, where you have this incredible close-up image of this – I love this one, and I’m sorry they’re not moving ones, so you’ll have to imagine – but this in the recording booth, in this kind of intensity, really close-up view in that sort of way. And I think the way that plays in then in so much of your work –
SM:Well, Empire isn’t close-up, is it, it’s not close-up?
DDS:Well, it’s not close-up, but it’s a sustained view, that kind of single point perspective. I mean, I don’t know how this one was filmed, if it was a single, just a single camera or –
SM:No, this one wasn’t. It was a single camera, but it wasn’t sustained, there were cuts in it. But your reference of Empire, of course, is a very monumental one in more ways than one. It’s just, I mean, yeah, I mean it’s, what I love about this, what I love about this is that it’s so much about the double-take, meaning that, OK, we all know the Empire State Building, we all know it. But then you look at it, you look at it, you look at it, and you go, oh, it’s slightly, you really study it, you know, no one looks at it for that long, no one looks at it for that long, and, you know, but you, again, we’re looking at, it’s film, it’s not the actual building, so it’s doing something else. So it’s light, it’s sculpture, it’s reflecting, it’s illuminating the audience, similar to upstairs, you know, the image is illuminating the audience, making them present, making them visible. Interesting, yeah, could go on forever.
DDS:You know, I’m curious – I mean, I have a slide of it, but you also – was the, your decision to include Moonlit, the sculpture, of the French granite covered in silver leaf. And, you know, we never got to really talk about that. So now I’m going to ask you to talk about that, since they’re up there.
SM:Well, I mean, again, I was just thinking about weight, weight was very important. Weight. And to look at something and have the idea of weight. And, OK, it’s granite, it’s from, French granite, somewhere in France, it’s granite, and at the same time I wanted to sort of, I don’t know, there’s a tactile nature of it I wanted to have, get on it. And at first I painted it in silver paint, and I did this and this; all of a sudden, oh, silver leaf, you can get this silver leaf and you could cover it, you could actually, it’s very tactile, very sort of, you know, I just love the whole idea of working and molding the silver paper – paper, excuse me – leaf around the rock. And then I was thinking, again, I don’t know, you sort of, sometimes you come, you get a tail before you get the head, and then I was like OK, this is, it’s almost like film for me, because it is, you know, it’s almost like black-and-white film, you know, the three-dimensionality of it. You know, black-and-white film and silver elements to it. So there was this situation where I wanted just sort of it to have not two-dimension but a three-dimension situation, and to have that sort of heft as such. And I wanted it to be something other out of, I wanted it to be presented with something because these rocks were presented to me, but also I wanted to sort of interact with it.
DDS:What do you mean when you say the rocks were presented to you?
SM:Well, I never made them, they occurred as such.
DDS:And you chose them, specifically?
SM:Yeah, you choose this one, this one, of course, but yes. I chose them, but they were there already and such.
DDS:I mean they do have weight, and they’re also an image. It’s a very interesting combination of the, when you talk about the sort of detail, I mean if you really study those and really look, and the fact that, you know, it’s not, it’s only lit by natural light. There’s a kind of sense of something almost, somewhat romantic I have to say.
SM:Again, yes, of course, but also moonlit and of course the light projected onto the, you know, again, it’s like a projection. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve experienced, I mean, I’ve been to the West Indies. I remember my grandmother, there was not streetlights, and it was all moonlight, but it was so beautiful. This projection of light, this casting of shadows, this light which makes form, that’s I, and somehow those elements were sort of embodied in what I was trying to do.
DDS:I’m very happy that they’re part of it. I mean, to me, also the two screens –
SM:But then again everything is projection, everything is sculpture, because everything is filmed to some extent because it’s how these, how we’re visible right now is through these lights, we’re being projected, we’re made visible into the space. I remember, I did this movie – this piece, not movie – called Illuminer, and it was me in a French Parisian hotel room. And I remember it was a nightmare. I had to do this work for Marian Goodman in Paris, and I had no bloody idea. I’m (inaudible), I don’t know what to do, what’s this going on, it’s a couple of days. And I don’t know what came over me, but I put the TV on, and it was this, what was it, it was this documentary on I think the first Iraq War, and it was about the Seals, the Navy Seals, and their procedure, how they sort of are chosen, selected, they (inaudible). It was a very kind of violent sort of documentary, American documentary but translated in French. You’ve got the American and the French sort of translation. And so I put – I was in a hotel room, as you do, you’re naked, hello, hello – and I put the camera on top of the television, and I just took the camera and I just point it at myself on the bed. So it’s interesting because it’s sort of this violence projected me, because then again what happens is it was a very early video camera, so the pixilation was struggling to sort of catch me, struggling to identify me, mold me, and shape me, make an image of me. So what was projected onto me were these images of violence on this bed. So it’s almost like a Monet sort of nude, so this very, and on the bed I’m sort of black on this white sheet. It’s almost like, you know, and but it’s color. So it’s kind of interesting. It was just really kind of interesting that at the time, that these images, and now of course you get the sound and the audio and the machine gun going and whatnot, the horror or whatever. But my existence has, and all of our existence, in fact, has been sort of, you know, how we are sitting here today, how we’re having this conversation is because of the past, and a lot of the past is because, you know, wars and so forth and whatnot. You know, a lot of, our situation, how we are here now is a lot of unfortunate situations have occurred for us to be sitting here now.
DDS:Yes, yes. I mean it’s the irony of kind of a beautiful light on some level, lighting you in this room, but also absolutely horrific in what it’s about. It’s like this inherent contradiction on some fundamental level. It’s interesting to think of Moonlit and the dialogue between those two. It would be kind of a great two-room installation for another time. So, again, these very close-up images to me are – this is one of Charlotte Rampling where you are basically putting your hand, your finger on her eye. I think there’s a, install, one of that.
SM:I think it’s wrong to say that a lot of them is a close-up because unfortunately, sorry –
DDS:This is a still image, though, of your cousin, correct?
SM:OK, yes, this is a still of my cousin Marcus. It’s a piece called 7th November, and again it’s about, he unfortunately shot and killed his brother, and it’s just about what happened to him and so forth and whatnot. And, yeah, this is, and the thing with the scar on his head, as he said, that’s another story. So that’s that. But I want to say, go back to close-up because not all of them are close-up as such. It’s not about, I’m not interested in image, that doesn’t, images, you know, in fact they bore me. What I’m interested in is what things can actually do, how they can actually translate more than anything else.
DDS:Talk more about this notion, though, of how the image bores you. It just, say a bit more about that.
SM:How, it’s, I mean, of course they excite me, too.
DDS:You mean, the aesthetic, just the –
SM:Yeah, the whole of, this sort of idea of, you know, it’s about finding things which are – how can I say this – which tell you something more than what you see, obviously, and how that can sort of, it’s about like the stone that you throw into the pond. It’s not about the stone, the ripples, how it affects. And those images can be the most banal images in the world, but it does something which is kind of quite powerful.
DDS:Well do you think, I mean, do you see, because then all of the things in a sense are these sort of telling stories in one way or another.
SM:I think everything’s a story. This bottle of water’s a story, I mean, everything’s a story.
DDS:I mean because as things, I mean this Western Deep, which is a truly, and Caribs’ Leap, truly extraordinary film in terms of the way you use the images, if you will – and the reason I showed some of those earlier images is particularly, you know, for people who aren’t as familiar here with those – but that sense of embodiment, of the body – and I don’t want to fetishize the body as an abstract concept because I think that can become very problematic, or at least I see it in that if it’s just theorized in some way, because you’re talking about specific bodies, specific people, who are engaged in activities – in this case, the miners doing these exercises to be deemed fit then, whether or not they can be, go back in the mine, and –
SM:It’s what people want to focus on. I think, you know, it’s not, that’s not my debate, that’s other people’s debate or some people’s debate, it’s not all people’s debate, thank god. But it’s about, my situation’s location. This is only a tool to do something, you know, it’s not just, it’s not of itself.
DDS:But the sort of choice of narratives, choice of subjects, let’s get onto that. I mean, the specifics of something like this, or in Gravesend, you know, now we’re getting even to like back to Drumroll in a sense, that the subject here is also something that has, that makes the world run, but that takes a human capital, if you will, in order to get it out into the world. And so those subjects throughout your work are, I think, deeply meaningful to you.
SM:So what, I mean, just to give some, a little bit of context to these images is that I was interested in working in the Congo, and I was interested in this material called coltan. I mean, if you don’t know what coltan is, it’s in most of your bags or pockets. It’s a conductor, it doesn’t overheat, it’s in every mobile phone, every digital, electronical piece of equipment. And the majority of that mineral is found in the Congo. And it was for me very similar to the rubber situation with King Leopold II, the King of Belgium who basically, you know, owned the Congo and went into the Congo and, you know, started sort of harvesting all this rubber. I mean, and if you didn’t get enough rubber, you know, as a native person, you didn’t gather enough rubber, you got a hand cut off. So, for me, it was this rush, it was also the parallel situation of technology, the whole idea of the motorcar, the bicycle, the conveyor belt, those things which needed rubber, and now these things which need coltan, if it’s a mobile phone or PlayStation, whatever. I mean, it’s crazy. There was this time where – what was it, the price of coltan went up to a certain amount of time, so doctors and lawyers were leaving hats and canes behind and going in the Bush to shallow mine the stuff because PlayStation 2 was coming out, and they stockpiled, it was crazy. So the parallel for me with coltan was very sort of fascinating in the same way of the Industrial Revolution and now the Digital Revolution. So I went into the Congo and, yeah, as you do, during not the most safest period of time and sort of just was interested in the mining and how this thing goes, you know, the raw mining with hands and shovels to, you know, it was in your pocket right now. So that’s narrative.
DDS:When you went into those situations, were, in terms of, I mean just the pragmatics actually of access to these places, and –
SM:Oh, it was crazy.
DDS:Yeah, I mean what –
SM:Oh, you want a story, OK. There was this guy who was, he was – what was he like – he was like the guy, he was like Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. He was a guy who was sort of into, he was protecting gorillas, but he knew how to get us to these mines. And we were not prepared properly, we had tents that leaked, we had about a 17-guy convoy of men carrying our stuff and whatnot, and we fly into the place called Walikale – look at it on Google, it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere – and we walk for three days to get to this mine. And it was all, and then we get there, and things happen and we start filming and whatever. And then the guys, when the guys get scared because, you know, some of the gorillas were hurt, some gorillas were there and they were hurt, there were white men there so they’re coming. So we had to, next day, we shot for like five hours and we had to get it out of there, yeah. Again, for me, it was like walking in Kew Gardens. You’re always oblivious to things until shit happens, you know what I mean. And the guy was scared, he was crying, and then, but you know we just walked out, we got everyone, we walked out, and it was weird, it was really kind of cliché logs over rivers. It just, it was bizarre. I wouldn’t do it now.
SM:No, I was, you know, you’re young, you don’t think of things like that. And then when we got back to, we got to this space near the border of Rwanda, and this guy says, oh, you were there, we cleared that area last week. I thought, you cleared that area last week; obviously he wasn’t using his Hoover, but it was rough, it was rough, it was awful in fact.
DDS:Can we talk, I have a slide of the Venice project, can we talk about that?
SM:Which one, Venice.
SM:Oh, Gravesend. No, that’s, what is that –
SM:Giardini, excuse me.
DDS:I mean, I remember so distinctly this project because of, in a way it was a surprise that you chose to film the gardens, the Giardini in the Venice Biennale grounds off season when no, essentially it’s the complete opposite of when the art world descends, and there’s a lot of Prada dresses and various other things floating around. I mean, it’s a completely different place. And I was so deeply moved by the – it’s the two slides – but the sense of desolation but also that there is a complete life that goes on there. There’s, I saw it as almost a, I don’t know if you saw it as the, you know, the sort of flipside of – I took it almost as a commentary on the art world – I don’t know if that’s how you meant it, but that’s how I kind of came to it.
SM:Yeah, I don’t really care about what he says, he says.
DDS:So we’ll get to that one in a minute.
SM:Well, for me, I was interested in, of course, I was interested in parks (inaudible) wangers on it. I was interested in parks – come on, who’s like, shut up.
DDS:Well you did do a park in Amsterdam.
SM:I’m boring myself. No, but no, I was interested in these public spaces, in parks, because what I loved about parks in certain periods, of course, certain places, you know, people playing and the kids and having picnics and stuff like that, and it was beautiful. And at night it turns into something completely different. I did that on purpose. It becomes this sort of place of sort of, you know, pursuit and to be pursued, and, you know, people, it’s the whole idea of the cruising and other things going on there. You know, the homeless possibly move in there when everyone moves out. It becomes this different nocturnal, another kind of playground, another kind park.
DDS:A lot of feral dogs there, too.
SM:Yeah, yeah, I mean again it’s a home day and night, and I loved the idea of going back to, again, the obvious in some ways. Again, the obvious, OK, maybe that’s why it’s interesting for me because it’s so obvious, no one does it, so I want to do it.
DDS:That’s what was so extraordinary. I was privileged, I was fortunate to have been in the Giardini off season and have this completely different experience of it. And you focused even on bugs crawling on trees.
SM:To stray cats and this woman, there’s a woman in Giardini, she has a shopping trolley, old woman. I don’t know if she’s alive anymore, but she’s been there forever, and she’s there to feed the cats, for example. And why I sort of added these dogs – these are greyhounds, these are all greyhounds that were meant to be dead, always the rescued greyhounds. They were all sort of the racing greyhounds where often what they do is they hang them, kill them after. So I interested in also that whole idea of these saved, you know, they sort of, they’re meant to be dead, poor animals. But also these dogs were very much, very Venetian because they were very hunting dogs for the well to do.
DDS:Oh, for the Doge.
SM:But I just love, they’re like skeletons these dogs, and they really look so sort of, their limbs are obviously like the trees. So we got a lot of these dogs together, these salvaged dogs, rescue dogs rather, excuse me – yeah, I know, thank you for correcting me –
DDS:I’m going to jump –
SM:Who is it there, it’s fucking Rose Lord, shut it, always on me, give me a break, shut it. I’ve got people, I’ve got people, what’s the matter with you, apologize, always --
DDS:It’s always good to have your gallerist in the front row. OK, I’m flipping over the, because, you know –
SM:So anyway, I want to just wrap that up – thank you for the – so that was interesting, to be going there, and going to Venice at that time and to see, yeah, and see people sleeping rough and whatnot, and to sort of, wanting to sort of curate some of that. So I was just interested in that sort of, that nocturnalness and also that off season, that sort of, you know, discarded sort of environment. And then, of course, come whenever – was it May, June – it’s painted up, it’s spruced up, it’s all done up and whatnot.
DDS:And no one has any idea that it has a whole other life.
SM:No one really cares.
DDS:Well, is that true, yes.
SM:Moving on and –
DDS:I think it would be good – oh, well, before we move into, I thought it would be great to show a few film clips – but this, of course, was in your most recent. Well, this was in Venice, the last Venice, Ashes, and such a deeply moving story about someone who you came to know, and –
DDS:How old was he when he –
SM:He was twenty-four, I think, twenty-four when he died, and I, so what it was, I was doing this piece called Western Deep / Caribs’ Leap for Documenta 11 that was, no, yeah, Documenta 11, that was Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta. And what happened was that I had this footage from the stuff I did with Caribs’ Leap. I basically went to Grenada to film – Grenada is a western island where my parents come from. What happened in Grenada, first of all there was the Arawaks who lived in Grenada, and then there was the Caribs that came over from Central America, South America, ate, killed all the Arawaks, then after that the French came. And what happened in the specific area where my parents come from, where this was filmed, called Sauteurs, was that instead of surrendering to the French, the Caribs leapt to their death. So where the cemetery is, and where this obviously was – Ashes, this is called Sauteurs – and of course when they jumped to their death they put a Catholic Church there not to commemorate them. Anyway, but of course what happened then was they brought in the Africans, the French, and then there was like a twenty-year war with the British and the British came in. So what’s interesting about these islands, they kind of repopulated like three or four times, and it’s just interesting, the whole idea of flux. That was interesting in shooting in Grenada at that time, as well as what I was doing with the miners in South Africa. So this gentleman here, Ashes, was just this beautiful, just such a stunning man, extraordinarily stunning man. He was a fisherman, and he was deep-sea fisherman, he swam, dived for lobsters. His father – I remember his father very early on when I, because, you know, my parents still live in a village – he had the bends, his father, and of course they didn’t have any decompression chambers in Grenada, and he died. I remember him very well. So Ashes was this guy who was a very beautiful man, very black, jet black, beautiful black, and he had these very fine features, he was stunning, you saw him with his blond dreadlocks. He was just amazing, like, you know, this person would walk past. And every time we, Robby Müller, who was my cameraman on this one. Robby, he shot with Wim Wenders, and Jim Jarmusch, and Lars von Trier, and Robby is sort of a neighbor of mine in the Netherlands. So Robby would shoot on Super 8, he loved it, he came along. So this guy would always almost like walk through our frame. Well, we would always be over here, and then we’d see Ashes over there. I thought, interesting. We’d be doing other things, but anyway, I said to Robby, Robby, let’s take him out on a boat and let’s shoot him, let’s shoot him. I don’t know why, but we’ll take him out on a boat and then shoot him. So we did, we shot him, we shot him, we shot him, we shot him. And I didn’t use any other footage, of course, for Caribs’ Leap in the end. I just forgot about it. So I went back to Grenada, five years later, they found out that he, Ashes had died. We shot this, this footage was shot in 2002, I went back in 2007, I found out that he had died. He had been killed by these – I mean, what’s going on in Grenada, in the West Indies, is that there’s island called Saint Lucia. And in Saint Lucia, you know, the economy’s very, very bad, in agriculture, it’s terrible, (inaudible) trade in Central America with Americans, it’s cheaper, bananas cheaper, produce whatever. So these small farmers don’t have anything to grow, so basically they grow weed now, a lot of them, and it’s kind of semi-legal there. And what happened was that these guys had this weed, and there’s an island called Isle (inaudible), this little deserted island, where they stash some of the drugs. And, of course, Ashes, he’s a fisherman, he goes out to these places, and there’s a beautiful island. It’s like classic Robinson Crusoe, it’s a classic story. The young boy finds his treasure, finds his gold, which is bags of weed. He makes five trips to take all the drugs, the bad guys come and find who took their stuff, and you’ll hopefully get your chance to see the piece, and yeah, he was killed quite brutally. So I found out he died, and I remember I shot the footage. I went back to look for the footage, and it was just shocking because it was very, and here was a guy – don’t forget, OK, when we shot this footage, he was killed two months after we shot this, obviously I didn’t know that. And what you have is this beautiful man, virile, beautiful, you know, naked to a certain extent, freedom, the idea of freedom, of moving towards this endless horizon of possibilities. So I did a piece where I showed like this, like all the footage, they cut it, but it wasn’t finished for me. I showed it in London just as, just on this side, and it wasn’t finished for me. So I went back to Grenada, and I found his grave, and he was buried in a pauper’s grave, you know, it was just a pile of dirt, and some other people. This is the cemetery. So this cemetery is, if you’re not affiliated to a church in Grenada, this is often where you, in Sauteurs, this is where you’re buried. So you see some mounds there, and it was a pauper’s grave, it was a mound, no marking, nothing, there’s a lot of them there. So his aunt, who I found, put a stone on the grave. I thought, OK, I’m going to make, I want to make him a grave. And that was it. So we shot that. So basically what happens when this piece, is you have one side of Ashes, and the other side of these two guys, people he knew, making his tomb, and that was it. And also what was interesting for me – I mean, you’ve got to see the piece, and me going on, I’m just telling you a story, and it’s not the piece, of course, so it’s completely different from what I’m talking about, but I just wanted to give the structure. And, of course, on that boat, you know Robby’s not well anymore – Robby, he can’t talk, he can’t walk, he’s kind of, he’s not well, Robby’s not well at all. So on that boat are these three guys, and the person who is front of the lens is gone, and the person who was behind the lens is not the person who he was anymore. So it’s very interesting for me as a piece in a way, so I’m giving you some strings.
DDS:Let’s talk about the difference also, I mean, I think obviously the feature films that you have done –
SM:I’ll say one thing about this piece, so what’s interesting about this piece, of course, you go from one side of the screen to this beautiful guy smiling and there’s everything, and you get to the other side of the screen where his death is, his future, his – I don’t know what you want to call it, whatever –
DDS:It’s truly blue skies one side.
SM:Yeah, it’s very disorientating in a way because it’s finality and possibility. Anyway, sorry.
DDS:No, not at all. I mean it’s the, you’re alive, you’re dead. It’s the most profound thing.
DDS:It’s life. But let’s just talk a bit about the, these feature films. So I have a few clips – I don’t know which one we’re going to look at –
SM:Oh, stay for the clips. Oh, you’re going, yeah, go on. I’ll stay for the movie. (laughter)
DDS:So, maybe we can show the one from – I don’t know, I have one from Shame, one from Hunger, and one from 12 Years a Slave. So, let’s look at the one from Shame. They have to key it up there for a minute.
SM:I don’t even know what –
DDS:It’s the subway scene.
[film clip from Shame plays]
DDS:That’s just such an extraordinary film. That’s when they first meet, and that whole thing of being done completely without any dialogue. The dialogue is in their expression. But, you know, could you talk a bit about, you know, basically working in this context as opposed to the way we’ve worked upstairs, let’s say, or the way you would normally look. I mean, now you’re working with a crew of people, you’re always collaborative, but this is a whole other kind of level of collaboration and control. I mean, I –
SM:Well, I don’t see the difference so much. I mean, of course it’s different if one is narrative and one is abstract, to a certain extent, fractured, whatever. It’s just, as I said before, I’ve said it a thousand time, it’s like writing a novel and writing poetry, you know, using the same tools to do different things, that’s all. You know, and it’s, I like people so it’s easy.
DDS:You make it sound so effortless, Steve.
SM:Well, I don’t really think of it as any other, you know, I don’t really want to sort of go into that. It’s not that, I mean it’s not that compli--, I don’t want it make (inaudible) easy, I don’t want to make it that, you know, I can make it very mysterious as most other people do, but it’s not that, it’s not that way at all.
DDS:No, I mean, I can see from working with you, and one of the great joys of working with you on this project has been this kind of way in which you sort of process things, and you’re incredibly open to listening, and then you sort of come to the decision. And it’s, I really, you know, it’s been a, it’s been, as a curator, you know, it’s wonderful to work with someone who works in that way, who sees, and like you’re in it in this incredible way, but you’re processing like, this is all these things are going through. And then you come to this place which seems like resolution. I mean, I don’t know, maybe beyond it, maybe you’re not expressing any anxiety you have and you’ve controlled that very well, but there does seem to be a decision that gets made, and you’ve come to it in some way.
SM:Well, yeah, you edit a lot. You talk, you get everything and cram it all in one room and all such in your head and you edit, you take it out, no, no, no, yes, no, yeah, OK, maybe, OK, no, no, not anymore. It’s just, and then what’s left is what’s right. I mean, you know, there’s a lot information but you just take it what’s, you know, it’s working very quickly. Again, you know, I’ve been doing it for awhile, so you know it’s maybe quicker than it would have been when I was a kid struggling. Again, when you’re in an art school for the first time, I’ve been told what to do for eighteen years as a child, and all of a sudden you’ve got your studio. I remember breaking down for two months, telling, asking people to tell me what to do, because you’re being processed all through your life, you know, what to do and when to do it.
DDS:And film school didn’t teach very much.
DDS:I know you’ve said –
SM:Well film school, film school, film school was, film school, I mean it taught, it teaches a trade, and I get it, but not everyone does things the same. Not every butcher cuts meat the same, and we were being taught the same. And, again, I was spoiled, I came from art school where you can experiment, you try to find your language, you experiment, you made mistakes. Making mistakes was, you know, the best thing about being in art school because you could experiment and, you know, you can’t make a mistake with things that cost, you know, stock and footage and so forth. We told you to put it in this way, not backwards. You can’t throw the camera in the air, you know, this is, you can’t cross the line. It’s like, oh my god, and you feel like you’re in a straitjacket so I left.
DDS:I’d like to show, and then we’ll start to wrap up, but the scene in 12 Years a Slave, and talk a bit – I know, maybe you’re tired of talking about 12 Years a Slave; we’re not tired of hearing of you talk about it. It’s such an extraordinary movie, so profound in its portrayal, I mean none of – I can speak for many people – none of us had ever seen a film that portrayed slavery in the U.S. in the way that 12 Years a Slave did. And there’s one scene, it’s the scene of Northup hanging on the tree. It’s very hard to watch, but to me it sums up so much about what you have brought, or I think you brought from your work as an artist into this kind of feature film. Do you mind, can we show it?
SM:Sure, and we can talk about it, yeah, sure.
DDS:OK, can we show the clip from 12 Years a Slave, please.
[film clip from 12 Years a Slave plays]
DDS:Real time, cinematic time in that, you know, I’ve never seen anything like that before.
SM:I don’t know what to say really. Well I knew before I did it, I wanted to do something which was sort of, you know, yeah I wanted to sort of put it on screen as it were. I wanted to make, it sounds silly to say, you know, lynching for, again, obviously saw him as tipping on his tiptoes, but I wanted to sort of, that to be, you know, some kind of image that would be in people’s heads of all the people that were lynched. It was very important to have it on the screen for that, not often you have a situation where you have a movie where the (inaudible) appears and it cuts away, or it will be on for two seconds. Oh, it’s so horrible, oh my god. No, let’s deal with this, let’s sit with this, let’s look at this, you know, and it was for me a symbol of all the people in some ways who had been lynched. It was important to, you know, have people sit and look, and not look away, and not turn away, and not be able to sort of, having to deal with it. It was very, very important for me, yeah, very, very important.
DDS:Such a, it’s an image that’s hard to say things about because it just, and yet it speaks sadly to a condition that is not historic anymore, sadly, as it moved into history.
SM:It continues in different ways, doesn’t it?
DDS:Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think the, you know, so many of the things about your perspective on United, the U.S. – I don’t want to fetishize that because I think that can become a whole, I don’t know anymore about what constitutes the –
SM:Well, I think, you know, and regardless of where you are – and we’re all Americans in that way. Again, I don’t –
DDS:What do you mean?
SM:Well, you know, when I was growing up everything on television, everything I ate, everything, you know, I was thinking, you know, again it was just, you know, so I don’t feel a foreigner in any sense, shape, or form of the word at all. I feel very sort of a part of, I mean just as I’m part of Europe, you know, I’m a part of this world I live in. So, yeah, I mean it’s, if you will, I’ve been coming here since I was seven years old –
DDS:What, to the U.S.?
SM:The majority of my family live here in the United States, you know, not in England, but, you know, some of them stayed in England. So it’s not, you know, again this whole idea, I remember said, well, you as a Brit, you know, you’re making this film. I mean, you know, it’s nonsense, absolutely hogwash. I mean, you know –
SM:No, I won’t do it. What’s up on that movie? No, what I mean by that, you know, again I think, you know, my mother and my sister, for example, again it’s, you know, were taken to Brazil possibly or taken to the West Indies, and some of them were taken to North America, I mean, you know, they cut and dice people up like that, and, you know, a Brit, no, I won’t buy that nationalism, I won’t buy it at all.
DDS:Well, I mean, to me, I think one of the great things about talking about things through the vehicle of art and artists is this exchange of ideas, and in a sense how things actually work in, not just in a network global way, but in a human way, in a deeply, deeply human way. So –
SM:Do we have one more clip, do we?
DDS:Yeah, you want to show Hunger?
SM:Hunger, yeah, I want to see the piss, excuse me.
DDS:You want to see the piss. OK, take the piss –
DDS:Let’s show the final clip, from Hunger.
[film clip from Hunger plays]
DDS:Wow, again, that’s such an extraordinary duration, and Margaret Thatcher’s voice coming in at the end, and the reality of what it all is.
SM:Oh, yeah, I wanted that burden, you know, I wanted that weight, I wanted it very much, I wanted it, very much. And I can’t tell you why, but I wanted that weight, I wanted that burden. And it was something, you know, I remember as a kid, like I said, on TV there was this image of this guy and a number underneath his name, excuse me, and a number underneath his image. And I asked my mother, you know, why does that guy have his number underneath his image, was it his age? No, it was how many days this person had been on a hunger strike. And I remember thinking about it and thinking that’s kind of interesting in a way, of in order to be heard one doesn’t eat, so it was very oral. And of course, doing some, years later, it always stuck in my head, and years later doing research on this, and I remember this, Pauline Kael did an interview with Godard two days after Bobby Sands died, in fact, it was at MoMA. And Godard said, the reason why the Baader-Meinhof and Bobby Sands are important is because they’re childish. Of course, and Godard (inaudible), what the hell are you talking about, what is this shite. And somehow I sort of equated that to – and I imagine everyone here has had that experience -- where you’re sitting at a table, and your mother and father says to you, as a child, you’re not leaving this table until you finish your food, you’re not leaving this table. And the only power you have as a child is to refuse to eat. What time you go to bed, what clothes you wear, et cetera et cetera, is sort of dictated to you by your parents, but the only power one has is to refrain from eating. And after a certain time, of course, your mom or your dad says to you, OK, leave the table, go upstairs, go to bed now, whatever they say, but that’s the only power you have, in a way. You know, everything has been dictated to you, the clothes you wear, the food you eat, school, what to do, how to do it, et cetera et cetera. So it was kind of interesting for me to think that way, and I think that was the seed and such of why I was fascinated with this subject matter. I wanted to go there, I really wanted to go there. So when I was in Belfast with myself and Enda, I was interested in asking the questions which were the questions in between the history books. The words, the space in between the words in the history book. Was it raining that day, OK, what kind of rain? Was it spitting, was it hard, you know? When do you get used to the smell? When do you stop noticing it? When do you get used to the blue bottles in the summer? When you’re on dirty protest for five years, you want to bring that person back you’re interviewing back to those sensual moments, you know, the whole, the sound of the clanging of the door, obviously the smell, the taste, all those things that actually bring you are the strongest senses about our memory. So those were the things I was very interested in investigating, for some reason I wanted the burden of that. And I remember when we, we did in Cannes, we came up from Cannes, we went to Belfast, you know, we had bodyguards and shit, and a lot of people were hiding under, death threats, hiding under chairs and sofas and the tables thinking shit’s going to happen. The funny thing was nothing happened. The movie started a dialogue, it did, actually art can actually be a tool to sort of start a dialogue or be a catalyst for something, and that was the first time the British acknowledged what was going on in those H-Blocks, and it started a conversation. So I was very pleased about that, not knowing what the end result was going to be. And, again, it was mad, you know, how the movie was made and how it was financed. You know, there was a very brave young woman called Jan Younghusband who gave me money to make it, and I think she was, she’d be given the sack, so had the movie not been a success she would have been sacked. Had the movie not been made in 2007, if it was in 2008, I always tell Michael, he would have been doing daytime soap, the economy, and after that no money, the film would not have been made in 2008, in 2009.
DDS:Well, I think that idea starting, of the conversation, and what is the power of putting things out there is something that is deeply, deeply valued, and I know we’re going to open it up to questions, but before we just wrap that up, I just want to say once again how thrilled, honored, all that kind of stuff, how deeply meaningful it’s been to work with you and to have your work here at the Whitney and as part, not only just part of this project but part of this institution, this city, and a country that you feel very at home at and are part of. So, shall we open it up to some questions?
SM:Yeah, I’m just happy about the gig, you know, I’m serious. OK, thanks.
DDS:You’re so good, Steve.
June 14, 2016