My taste in film has always been pedestrian. I was raised to think that James Bond, Indiana Jones, the first Star Wars trilogy and the six “canonical” Star Trek films were all you ever really needed to feel entertained. I didn’t know that films could be disorientating, uncomfortable, gritty, relentless, or intellectually challenging. I always believed that films were meant to be the loud, fun noises that came with popcorn and Coca-Cola.
That all changed during my first lecture in graduate school.
My tutor screened a non-linear, quasi-narrative film in its entirety, called dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y. Threaded with voiceover excerpts from Don DeLillo’s postmodern novels White Noise and Mao II, it was released in 1997 by Belgian filmmaker Johan Grimonprez. I never looked at visual media the same way ever again. Finally, I spoke to him. That sense of disruption, of turbulence, was on full display. It was time to buckle up. In effect, I’ve been waiting nearly 20 years for this interview to happen.
Johan Grimonprez was born in Roeselare, Belgium in 1962. He studied at the School of Visual Arts and attended the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program in New York. With its premiere at Centre Pompidou (Paris) and Documenta X (Kassel) in 1997, dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y eerily foreshadowed the events of 9/11. His 2005 film Looking for Alfred won the International Media Award (ZKM, Germany) as well as the European Media Award in 2006. His full-length feature, Double Take (2009) received the Black Pearl Award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, a Spirit Award, and was an Official Selection of both the Berlin and Sundance Film Festivals. In 2016, Grimonprez’s most recent feature-length film, Shadow World, won Best Documentary Feature Film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and at the 61st International Film Festival of Valladolid (Spain). Grimonprez’s work is housed in the permanent collections of the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), the Kanazawa Art Museum (Japan), the National Gallery (Berlin) and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Denmark). His curatorial projects have been hosted at major museums worldwide such as the Whitney Museum (New York), The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Pinakothek der Moderne (Munich) and Tate Modern (London). He divides his time between Belgium and New York, and is a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts (New York).
Grimonprez is represented by Sean Kelly Gallery (New York), to whom we extend our thanks for making this interview possible.
Sit back – but don’t relax – as FRONTRUNNER tears the veil of stillness and false calm. We’re proud to present Part I of our 2021 interview with Johan Grimonprez, finally available online.
I just wanted to get this out of the way, because I don’t know if I’ve made this clear enough. dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is one of the films that I’ve watched in excess of a hundred times.
Oh yeah? I think you’re the only one.
I’m happy to be that one. I did my Masters Degree here in London in 2007-
You wrote about it.
Not only did I write about it, but it was the first non-linear film I’d ever seen. The first day of lectures, he showed us the entirety of it. It changed my life. It changed the way I talk to artists, the way I approach looking at media, and it introduced me to alien concepts of paranoia, of alternative realities. First off: did you have any direct contact with Don DeLillo before creating the dialogue for that film?
Well, I thought it out working with the voice, and then it was actually two novels that we used for that, Mao II and White Noise. It was the very, very first longer film I was making. I’d made small films, but this was the very first one. So midway, we wondered, “Oh shoot, we should actually maybe ask the writer? Oh shit! Imagine if he would say no.” We enquired, and he said, “Yes, but send me some of what [you] have as a rough-cut.” We sent it anyway, and he was very pleased. Then there’s the dialogue that came about: he actually suggested a woman’s voice for the writer. There’s two voices, actually, in the film: one embodying a terrorist in dialogue with the writer, (an African-American voice), and the other voice used to be a DJ for Radio Nova in Paris. He thought the African-American voice was not appropriate for the writer. He wasn’t against the African voice representing a novelist, but he thought there was an idiom that didn’t fit with what the book stood for. He suggested an Arab woman. He definitely wanted to see the latest version and invited us to the Wallace Agency in New York. A sort of dialogue developed. I was not allowed to quote him, but he wrote one full email on how he really liked it. Then 9/11 happened, and he wrote the book Falling Man. The cover of Underworld (which I think came out before 9/11) had the World Trade Center on the cover. So there’s all these coincidences – he had premonitions or serendipities. The film foreshadowed the events in the world.
There are some parts of the film I’ve come to understand in more detail. There’s Leila Khaled and the female airline stewardesses who are consistently interviewed about airplane hijackings. The mirror images of the fearless freedom fighter/terrorist, and the unwilling but genteel stewardess describing a traumatising situation with such casual abandon. This dynamic between Khaled (who you’re tempted to believe is an antagonist), and the women who are opening television sets, answering phones and being stewardesses. They represent this inertia, a sort of sickening blockade of what a woman is considered to be, while Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” plays in the background.
You have to place that in its historical period as well, like jet flights are just about going very democratic. Security measures were not in place. Even if there was a hijacking from, say, Miami to Havana, it was sort of a sidekick. People didn’t have to go to work. They could visit Cuba, and had a free holiday. Bit by bit, at the time of the radical left, it was sort of glorious. It was glamorous, seductive, the way they dressed. With 9/11, things drastically changed. Even when I was making the film, people would say, “Why are you making a film about hijacking? People don’t hijack anymore.” And then, 9/11. The figure of the rebel had gotten criminalised. Even the journalist. Journalists today have turned into merely spokespersons for the big media corporations. But talking about people like Julian Assange, who really perform investigative journalism, they are being criminalised. If you read it, or you work as a journalist, you’re being criminalised. This is the position we’re in, and politically, it was a moment where the radical left was really finding itself.
Counter-terrorism, the counter-terrorist brigades – this was unheard of. The first one was actually Moshe Dayan in 1972, when they stormed the Sabena airline. That’s the first time they stormed a hijacked plane. But commandos were towards Mogadishu. I think it was a Lufthansa. Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother was involved in Entebbe was 1975. Those joint commandos were the RAF (Red Army Faction), German terrorists who went to train with Palestinian terrorists in Beqaa Valley, Lebanon. They also had television images because it was standing on the tarmac for a long time. Entebbe was a secret operation by Netanyahu’s brother.
I’m familiar with Entebbe. Entebbe, like the Black September Massacre, was used as a propaganda tool at my Hebrew school to demonstrate the heroism of the Jewish soul and the indestructibility of the Jewish spirit. If I ever felt an “All the Arabs are out to get us” sort of thing, my whole perspective had shifted after seeing your film. We have to cast protagonists and antagonists on the global stage in a very, very different way than we once did.
Yeah. In 1969 when Leila Khaled hijacked her first plane, it was a TWA from Rome to Damascus: it was on its way to Tel Aviv. There was sort of an innocence, as far as you can say that; nobody was killed and she let the passengers go free. She just made her statement, she flew over Haifa and said, “I’m claiming this plane as a territory of Palestine,” because she said, “I didn’t have a country, and I want to make a statement about my friend being shot in front of me in the street in Haifa.” The second time was 1970. Four planes were hijacked, and then a fifth because Khaled got caught in London. The radical left was still being defined, but it got really violent. It went back and forth: the commandos, the anti-terrorist brigades hijacked airplanes, things got exacerbated and people started getting killed.
Early on in dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, there was footage of Lenin (I think) at his desk, and both Russian and American propaganda “duck and cover” PDAs. It underscored, what seemed to be, an anxiety for you; a preoccupation with this never-ending stalemate between East and West. I’m wondering whether or not that was intentional, or whether it just developed almost organically?
Well I’m a kid of my own time as well. Born 1962. The whole Cuban Missile Crisis broke out a couple of months later. In Double Take, when François Truffaut meets Hitchcock on the set of The Birds at Universal Studios, that was actually on my birthday. That sets forth the whole narration. I was fascinated with this whole Khrushchev-JFK nuclear stand-off. It was the first time that the world was on the brink of nuclear war. I always thought it was an interesting period. It’s also going through history. Now, history’s different.
The first hijacking was in Peru: left rebels throwing pamphlets over Lima, which was a PanAm plane. I think it was a little bit later because it’s the first recorded notion that we have of hijacking, and it was by the left. The film ends with Clinton and Yeltsin laughing their heads off on the White House lawn during a press conference, at the end of the 20th century. It framed the Cold War, which in turn framed the history of airplane hijackings. Then up to when Yeltsin declared the end of the Communist Party in 1991. That was framing. I was working at the time on the edit and that sort of framed it for me: these two, the 20th century, through the vehicle of the airplane hijacking.
I think that, for me, dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y was the first time I watched a film and felt fear. I felt fear, anxiety…this pull that Don DeLillo describes so eloquently.
I wanted to retrace Double Take, as well here, because Double Take is very much about the rise of the culture of fear, also framed by the Cold War. It’s the rise of the cultural fear through the spectacle of television; it’s that tension between the two Hitchcock. You have that in dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y: a terrorist and a novelist having a dialogue. This is, of course, Don DeLillo and his book Mao II. The character in DeLillo’s book is postulating that the terrorist has replaced the writer.
“You terrorists are able to play the media much better than I can, so I’m relegated to the past.” And what it will take is actually Hitchcock having a conversation with Hitchcock saying, “Television has killed cinema.” Certainly in Double Take, you’d be the imitator, Ron Burrage, who’s actually representing YouTube, imitation culture, who’s killed television. Like when we say, “Video killed the radio star”, it would be more like “YouTube killed the television star.”
For me, dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y elevated fear to an existential level. When I’m in an airport, I think of that scene when the narrator was describing the mundane things he’s noticing, trying to observe his own environment, and it becomes hostile in his mind. Do you feel that same anxiety, sometimes, when you walk through an airport or through an unfamiliar environment? Do you take those words on board and feel that type of fear?
Maybe it’s more emotional in a sense of how the film came about. By saying goodbye, the saying goodbye is framed by the industry of fear, right? The surveillance, the fact that you have to take off your clothes or your shoes, etcetera. It’s more of how all these constraints come about, when you actually have to say goodbye. It’s not the terrorists anymore now, it’s your immune system, right? Carrying your mobile phone as carrying those images of fear with you. It’s in your bodies and instigated in a way where the fear has become total. It’s the domestication of fear, as consumers of happiness sold through ads, we have now become consumers of fear.
Since you are still teaching, is there a core principle that you consistently give to your students, or to younger people when you talk to them?
I’ve been teaching for twenty years. It was very much about questioning the language of manipulation, media archeology, dissecting the media, and the way we construct stories. Something that I picked up is this idea about the commons. People think immediately, “Ah commons, it sounds like Communism.” It’s not. The commons is something like the big “Charter of the Forest”, twelfth century, to protect the forest as a commons. It didn’t belong to the King, it was his hunting ground, but people grabbed wood, built a house, agriculture was always in dialogue with the forest. So there’s some scholars who’d call it the “commoning” as a verb.
I did an interview with Michael Hart and Raymond Tallis for Shadow World. They articulated about the commons. But Tallis articulated about tickling. The question was: how come you can’t tickle yourself? You need another, to tickle yourself, unless you’re schizophrenic. He was talking about the ontology of the “other.” Again, it’s like, “What do we share?” He’s a professor of medicine, a cognitive scientist, and he says consciousness is inherently not trapped in your brain. It’s all about dialogue, just like language. It’s something you share to express yourself. It doesn’t mean individuality does not exist, but it’s about the interchange. Michael Hart and [sociologist] Antonio Negri also define the commons as language: something you share, but then you build meaning through what you share. I think that’s so needed in this world.
Wherever you are, what are some things – like a book, or an object – that you really like having around you? Edibles, for example. What are you eating, there?
It’s a pomegranate from my garden. I’m living in Greece, on the island of Andros. We just got into lockdown, but I got involved with permaculture. Again, it’s all about that relationship to what we call nature, but nature is not separate. Your relationship to your food, growing your own food, relationship to the environment – for me, that makes it much healthier if your work is all about consuming images and editing.
Who are some younger artists that people should be looking out for?
Max Pinckers is a student of mine. Now he’s a photographer. He’s out there. I really like his work. There’s really a whole new generation of how people look at the way the world of images has been constructed as well, and how that becomes part of the way they define their world. So, he’s this younger generation, born with Photoshop, or when YouTube took off. Those kids were born around 9/11, they were babies or not even born. To go back and try to explain 9/11 – it’s such a crucial juncture, but suddenly you have to incapsulate a whole context that was a given. You see how younger artists deal with those things in a very different way. Also with the world, eh?