It’s not every day that a standard artist interview veers into animal intelligence, eco-activism, and the odd mention of Carl Sagan. My first discussion with the Belgian artist/filmmaker was meant to be a straightforward review of his nearly thirty-year practice.
But this is my second go-around with Johan Grimonprez, so I wasn’t counting on “straightforward.” Good thing, too.
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.
For Part II of our exclusive interview, FRONTRUNNER goes deeper into the ether with Johan Grimonprez.
Tying into some of the material in your work, I’m wondering whether you’re predisposed to violence, or animals. To kill or to maim without purpose or without reason, we’re the only species that does that. In terms of dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, it seemed as if the hijackers were acting as messengers, not killers. Killing was a byproduct of their obsession to bring the message home. It’s more about the ability to deliver the message and not about delivering silence. Is that right?
Not exclusively, but I also would like to add that it’s also how the self is defined, eh? You could question a lot about that. We don’t really grasp what the self is. How come we, for example, cannot tickle ourselves? Raymond Tallis is asking that self is, maybe, a limited way of looking at things. He explains how tickling alludes to the ontology of otherness: “You tickle, therefore, I am.” ‘Cause the self is always in relation-
To something else.
In dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, the relationship between the terrorist and the novelist is a fictional relationship within the book of Don DeLillo. So, it’s pushing him to think about extremes and, of course it’s a metaphor for things.
It’s difficult to not be convinced by the actual relationship between terrorists and novelists, outside the petri-dish of fiction.
Right. Then there is the third aspect which is the media, right? Don DeLillo is all about is the media. Tom McCarthy once said it’s like the choir, the dramatic triangle, as well. The spectator or the choir. But also historical, eh? Leila Khaled hijacking for the first time, it was not even about killing. Nobody was killed. The first hijackings were, I wouldn’t say innocent, but it was a different outlook when we think about hijacking, now. It put Palestine on the map, again. We cannot not but think about it through the lens of 9/11. You know what was that all about?
I imagine it was a fervent response to American interventionalism. It may have been part response, part provocation. It’s a radically different proposition to what Khaled or the earliest hijackers would have wanted to achieve. But, it has to achieve something. How would you hope the viewer consumes your kind of media, because you are also creating another type of media to be consumed by telling this story, no?
Yeah, the supermarket shelves have been rearranged, right? The hijacker hijacked by the terrorist spectacle. I worked a little bit with Thomas Elsaesser, who has died, sadly. He was a Dean of Cinema Studies in Amsterdam, and he talks about an ontological shift in consuming, in the sense that 9/11 meant sort of double take, bit of déjà vu, or something that we’d already seen in the media. Slavoj Žižek writes about 9/11 in how it’s political came back to haunt us in the form of the real. Underneath, there was already a suppressed sentiment existing within Hollywood, such as The Matrix (1999). There are so many films he references, including The Birds (1963). The birds hitting Melanie crossing Bodega Bay, he would re-inscribe it as the second plane hitting the second WTC tower. Living in the political unconscious. So, it’s coming back to haunt America.
My response to The Birds was much different. I took a more gendered approach. So much screen time was devoted to the birds pursuing Tippi Hedren’s character, and that was also a very troubling metaphor with Hitchock’s own toxic relationship with Hedren, the actress.
Oh yeah, totally.
It was this swarm, this violent rush towards unsuspecting citizens who feel that their innocence shielded them, which is untrue. Maybe that’s a parallel between the way that we consume media; we consider ourselves like, “Hands up, I didn’t ask for this.” But we feed into what we want to see in our filmmakers and our writers. We are the products of our own consumption, and we push it again and again, what we excrete becomes what we consume.
But there is a subtext to that consuming, eh? In an article called “The Silence of the Birds” (2009), A. Restivo explains why there’s no television in the film. Television was so present. We’re in a moment where Hollywood is still trying to suppress television. It was because the birds are television. While there’s a lot of gender issues – a lot of television commercials we’re sold with a woman as standing in for technology – the suppression of the new family member. In Double Take, definitely it’s the suppression of these gender issues, but also it’s that catastrophe culture invading the home. We’re trapped inside the home, in front of the television, which is the birds coming through the chimney. The car, the mall – through television, we could move to the suburbs because that ideological control was still intact. Also with the nuclear family, the suppression of gender, it’s the happy consumer disguised as domestic bliss that pervades the suburbs. All of that is very much kept intact through television, which I would see as the birds, bringing into the home.
This deep, nervous breakdown was happening for Hitchcock, the character, in Double Take. The tension he feels with his doppelgänger; it felt like he was always on the verge of this massive ontological crisis. The “death drive”: transcending reality in order to achieve a higher state of being through death, being just a passageway. To a younger viewer, or another artist looking at your work, do you approach death as an endgame?
In Double Take, when the dialogue starts (between Kennedy and Khrushchev), that’s where actually they’re both getting killed. So, there’s a flip-side of dialogue that I think is interesting, and again that relation aspect. It’s funny, one month before Kennedy was killed, he was signing a nuclear treaty. He was opening up that, sort of détente and refusing that Israel would get the bomb, while on the other side, Khrushchev refused Mao in getting his hands on the bomb.
Before Shadow World, Double Take, and dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, did you know early on what you wanted your work to communicate to your viewers, or to anybody who stood in front of it?
After school, I was still studying cultural anthropology. I went out on a culture exchange to Western Papua New Guinea, which is now a part of Indonesia called Iriyan Jaya. There’s a lot of transmigration projects, and poor Javanese families relocated there by the World Bank, outnumbering the aboriginal population. But living there, having met the guerrillas, the OPM (called Organisasi Papua Merdeka, the Free Papua Movement), it was sad to hear how they told me, “My mum as killed” or, “my brother was killed there.” Being sheltered in this academic environment, then going out to the fringe of what the West does to the rest of the world. That, I wouldn’t say scarred me, but definitely made me alert to dealing with that subject matter, wherever you open your eyes. I wouldn’t say necessarily, “Ah okay, I’m gonna work about that,” but there are certain events in my life that made me more conscious about what I wanted to tell, for sure. Living very cheaply, having machine guns pushed in my face, literally. This OPM, Indonesian military men pushing machine guns in my face; I woke up and all these things have made a little bit of what my work would become afterwards. Then, my first film came out called, Kobarweng or Where is Your Helicopter?, which was pre-dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y.
Do you think, in response to that, that the West is due a reckoning of some kind?
I’m with Michael Hardt when he says those friction moments are not only in a global South. But he would use the term “global apartheid”, right? It’s not something that is only North and South, it’s also internal, it’s within the cities, and it’s not so clear-cut. He says walls are not only physical – of course they’re out there, like the Mexican wall and the Palestinian wall – but they’re also internalised. And that’s even worse. A global apartheid domesticated. Even at the level of fear of COVID, we have technology that we carry with us. With nanotechnology and advances, it becomes even more intimate. If 9/11 is sort of a symptom, I think COVID is also sort of a symptom, of a world that has internalised this global apartheid. I think it all fits neatly together. Even in our suppressed feelings, we all suffer from trauma, with a disappearing world. Because we’re all isolated, we’re not sharing that trauma. Joanna Macy, an eco-feminist, says, “You can change the world by starting to feel how Mother Earth is crying, to feel the sadness of the world.”
Are there people out there who you feel are making inroads to help people become more aware, or to help reverse this process?
Well it’s the first point we talked about in our previous session, eh? We referenced [the late American biologist] Lynn Margulis and Donna Haraway, who makes this move from cyber-feminism to companionship. She writes a book about her dog, but it’s all about that threshold of connection of relationship. Margulis talks about this form of symbiosis: it’s not just, “We’re cut off from one another,” no. Life, complex life, comes about by cooperative living, that forced living together by way of indigestion, says anthropologist Jeremy Narby. I don’t wanna call it in a way where all this is happy happy whatever, you know.
Being a little pedestrian for a second, what’s your opinion on the methodology of someone like Sir David Attenborough?
I still think he’s an outsider objectively trying to look in. I’d align more with somebody like the writer who lived with the Shamans in the Amazon, took ayahuasca and crossed over. You really feel the pulse, where something has happened to you that you really don’t understand, like your ontology has completely shifted. I feel there’s something else, a complete shift is needed. A more drastic shift. The notions of reality are completely shattered. I’m not saying reality does not exist. I’m more with Raymond Tallis, again, where it’s relational, intersubjective. A closer example would be The Truman Show (1998). We are all these “Truman” characters who are not in touch with reality, we’re being played. It’s trying to break through those clouds and then suddenly you realise those clouds are something else. You say, “Shit! Something is not as it seems to be.”
Is making art a way to break the bubble, or are we just creating new bubbles all the time?
Let me throw back another film. At the end of Contact (1997), Jodie Foster’s character hears from her dad, “If it is just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” When she actually meets the unknown, disguised as her dad, she’s screwed afterwards as she cannot share the parameters to explain what happened to her. She says, “While I can’t defend myself, I’m just saying [that] something happened to me. I experienced this. I cannot explain it, I just ask you to believe me.” But she did add during her experience, “They should have sent a poet.”
My last formal question: what kind of challenges exist for young filmmakers and young artists moving forward?
To dig deeper beyond the surface, to not accept the mainstream narrative. That’s so crucial. On every level. What I see sometimes in school, people are waiting for a budget to make their film, da da da da. But it’s so easy to get out there with a phone, you have your own editing tools, it’s so easy to get started. Sometimes those are more interesting narratives, as well. I don’t believe in this solipsistic sort of hyper-normalisation, living in a palace of mirrors, that’s not what I’m talking about. I think it’s more about relating and exacting, all in a bubble. It’s also questioning, what is that relationship? We talked about gratitude, and I think that’s a big one, as well. You know, what the world is about. Taking everything for granted. Gratitude is a big one. I think that’s the conundrum we’re in, right? If you don’t have that relationship, you cannot cherish it at all. You’re cut off from everything else, you don’t cherish it anymore, so the gratitude is far, far off.