“I am putting the fire underneath people”. Isaac Julien in conversation with Katarzyna Bojarska

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Katarzyna Bojarska: As far as I know, WESTERN UNION: small boats is a third part of the trilogy Cast no Shadow. So what is it that ‘casts no shadow'?

Isaac Julien: Well, Cast no Shadow was a performance, a theatrical work, a collaboration between myself and Russell Maliphant1 , the dancer, better known as choreographer, who has recently worked with Sylvie Guillem on some very famous pieces 2. My idea was to bring together three works from what I call The Expedition Trilogy: True North, made in 2004, which traces Matthew Henson's footsteps that he had made with Mr Peary when they went to the North Pole in 1909, but is a kind of modern day travelogue, a meditation on the sublime expedition into the North; second work in the trilogy is Fantôme Afrique3 which traces the journey that artists and writers like André Gide and Michel Leiris made going to West Africa 4. And in that piece I go back to Ouagadougou which is Burkina Faso which was in colonial times called Upper Volta and so, it is like retracing of the steps of these anthropologists and writers. Of course, today we do not find masques, which have become part of the Museum de l' Homme collection in Paris, instead we find open-air cinemas, post-modern, post-colonial architectural buildings. Actually commissioned by Centre Pompidou, True North and Fantôme Afrique became a four-screen work known as Fantôme Creole which I showed here at Ujazdowski Castle a couple of years ago, so people may have seen in a way the first two parts of the trilogy in one work 5. And finally, WESTERN UNION: small boats is the last instalment of that trilogy.

In Cast no Shadow, True North was shown together with Russell Maliphant's choreography which was performed for the three screens. We re-edited the original work to create a work for the stage. Russell choreographed bodies in front, behind and between the screens. And then, the second part of the performance was as the screening of the film, but the real theatrical collaboration was in small boats. The theatrical version of WESTERN UNION: small boats is just called Small Boats and ‘Western Union' is the actual photographic light-box installation. What we actually did for the performance was to make it a single screen work, a front-projected proscenium where, in a way, the space between the choreographic light, the dance performance and the cinema space dissolved into one another. Because the dance performance took place behind the screen of the projected image, it lost the spatial differences between the stage and gained this kind of third space. It was quite magical. And the reason why I made this live work was really to bring out the kind of performative aspects in the film works which are being explored through choreography and spatial-aesthetic concerns.

KB: And so what ‘casts no shadow', where does the title come from?

IJ: Cast no Shadow is really in a way a kind of poetic but defined title; you should actually ask Russell Maliphant about it, because it was also his idea. But I read it, however, within a context of the ways in which people may circumscribe certain modes of looking at these kinds of journeys and exploration of subject matter like migration. To challenge the normative or conventional ways of looking at these issues and to explore what they might mean in a poetic sense or how they might translate in other areas like dance. Cast no Shadow is to reserve your judgement, to stop making assumptions about certain things. At the same time Cast no Shadow refers to Russell Maliphant's choreography - how he works with light and dark and his work with Michael Hulls.

KB: Seems it can be both literal and metaphoric. In my opinion, this metaphoric dimension could be read in many various ways, one of them being matters that within the history of colonialism and the western history of modernity and civilisation have cast no shadow, i.e. became invisible, unseen and unrecorded within the framework of the history of the conquerors and winners as Walter Benjamin would have it.

When you called you work "the expedition trilogy" would you say it is a deconstruction of the travel or expedition (narrative), the travel seen as this romantic and very strongly mythologised notion in the Western culture; as a kind of Bildung, the process of gaining knowledge, of learning, etc. It seems to me that in the works we were just talking about one deals with a distorted image/narrative of travel, a slightly distorted travelogue.

IJ: Yes, I think it is a slightly distorted travelogue. But at the same time, there is a question of desire, and perhaps thinking about a kind of difficulty of space and movement for certain types of bodies or certain groups. I think in my filming I am always looking at how landscape can transgress space. For example, thinking about those spatial relations in a slightly different configuration. So, in the case of True North, it is really this sort of looking for the spatial aspect of the sublime and how one can in a way contaminate that. And I think there is this questioning of the sublime in WESTERN UNION: small boats. A slightly more troubling sublime and how one can put these things together in the same frame. For example, the Sculpture for the New Millenium images look both beautiful and disturbing.

KB: In this context I was actually thinking about whether you are not afraid of combining the traumatic aspect of this landscape or traumatic aspect of this history and the notion of beauty. Are you not afraid of the accusation of the aestheticisation of trauma. Have you ever come across this kind of accusation or doubt on the part of critics or audience?


IJ: If I am interested in beauty, I am interested in a troubling one. I am not making a work because I want it to be beautiful. I am applying the technique of cinema to video art and my work is not only about the subject matter at hand, it is also about, at least, three things. In the case of WESTERN UNION: small boats, it is a conversation with Visconti, it is looking at Sicilian landscape and these spaces which belong to a cinematic history and it is saying: well what about these spaces being occupied by different sorts of bodies doing different sorts of things? How about looking at these broken boats as graveyard as a subject for art. In a way this is a contaminated sublime. I hope!

So what I am really doing is fucking with what Europe has constructed as the domain for particular subject matter. So, I am deliberately second-guessing and trying to overturn what I think has been rather vulgar and rather, shall I say, narrow way that these sorts of questions have been explored. Because the stereotypical mode of exploring these questions of migration would be conventional documentary, and that is just a genre at the end of the day, but for some reason, I think the problem of Europeans, or the problem of people looking at art, is that they are used to looking at these questions in those forms and they want the question of aesthetics to be separated from life, and certainly to be separated from these (traumatic) stories. So the question is: why do you want them to be separated? If you go on a vacation, or beach holiday, the whole problem is that you may find your holiday interrupted by this sort of event. So the question is how you act: do you just continue sunbathing? So in fact the sublime is getting interrupted in front of one's very eyes. And I think that is crucial. So in my work I am pointing at that. I am pointing to the idea of the ruination of the sublime and turning upside down a subject that Europeans take for granted as their subject area.

KB: Are you not also pointing to the ruination of the huge modernist project. Is it not a deconstruction of modernism in a widest possible sense?

IJ: Yes, it is a sort of deconstruction of that, of course - there has been a lot of discussion of this recently. I am taunting people really. I am saying: look at these images! That's why one falls under suspicion, and of course I am doing that deliberately as a provocation. When Billy Holiday sang about terrible things her songs remained beautiful. That's the blues. Strange Fruit is about something that is really awful but Strange Fruit is a sublime song. And I think critics have not really taken up what art would look like when someone who is a non-white European makes it. That it could be viewed differently perhaps from how someone who is white looks at them. It's a provocation.

KB: So in the context of this elaborated critical project what does the shift from traditional cinema to gallery space, or, in other words, from documentary and other cinematic genres to installation art and /or performance mean to you? What kind of shift is that and how does it contribute to this critical, theoretical project of yours?

IJ: I like the idea of re-articulating these forms. As a way of making a critical commentary. The work is also a critique of what I see as a kind of rather narrow repertoire of representation strategies for visualising this subject. I have always been attracted to the idea of transgressing the boundaries, of utilising these contradictory aesthetic approaches with certain subject matter. I think that is just as political as the subject matter itself. A very good friend of mine who is a critic said once: Isaac, when you do a work of art, you are attacking on two fronts as if you are using the subject matter and you are, at the same time, using ‘their' aesthetics. I want to make this cognitive impact as well. I am still interested in art that can make for a cognitive dissonance and I am also pursuing this. So when I am making a piece which is documentary, that is going to be in a slightly different form. The thing is I am very interested in utilising forms and content in a way that would not be for that form. So deliberately upsetting what would be the normative ways of seeing that content visually.

KB: That was exactly the feeling I got. When I was asking you about the relation between trauma and beauty, what I had in mind was the fact that we are so used to the so called serious, historical, political matters being discussed either in discursive media or in professional, academic genres and not in artistic forms be it literature or visual or performative arts. And here in you work we have dance, and dance is the least discursive, the least political form one could imagine (so it is in a common perception of the way things are), and at the same time the most artistic, or the most beautiful if you like. And yet, here it becomes the vehicle of your critique.

IJ: Yes, it is about utilising bodies in ways which would not ordinarily be pursuit in the moving image works. And certainly not for that subject matter. Because I think some people might, as you said, think: o.k., this is just beautifying these kinds of questions, so it could not be serious. But then, think of opera's utilising tragedy or allegory for talking about politics. There exists a Brechtian tradition which I am alluding to. I am using allegorical methods and so in a way to think about my work as a documentary would be completely wrong, because it is not a documentary but it has to do with content which is stereotypically presented in that form. My work is really something else, a visual meditation using lyrical, poetic forms to explore serious matters, but reaching for other methodologies and artistic practices that would not ordinarily be approached or even thought about in this particular context. And that has been one of my central ambitions. I am interested in unifying different artistic disciplines that can somehow at the same time break down associations which they establish, to try to articulate something new. So there is an uncanny aspect and I think there is also something positively or negatively jarring about it. The thing is why would we not give some lyrical aspect to these issues? Why would we want them to remain in one form? In a way we are discussing how genres in contemporary art and in film have certain subject matter for which they are deemed fit. And I think these became a kind of perversity actually.


KB: And fetishization.

IJ: Exactly! And fetishization. People are used to seeing documentary form as adequate and suitable for the subject of migration, and that is where the distortion comes from. People are literally running scared of how my work looks. And in a way, I am putting the fire underneath people. It is a deliberate provocation.

KB: I found it very surprising, as I haven't known about it before, that you work, you shoot, without a script. Of course, you are doing some preparatory work, but then you go out and shoot. What is the meaning of leaving the script out? Is it liberating really? What does this gesture imply?

IJ: It is very much about improvisation. I do not know what I am going to do. In that sense it is a bit like playing jazz. The script gets formed when you are creating the montage. And yet montage also becomes an improvisation. How the narration gets restructured is through the editing. And I am finding what I want to say through the whole process of making the work. So it is about things being improvised and not always controlled. You write a script to be in control of what you are going to say and to inform producers of what you are going to do - that's boring. And therefore you can make the generic subject in a generic form and that is why you get documentaries and everybody is happy and can go to bed at night. Do you see what I mean? I decided to do away with those rules. It is all about disentanglement from rules of genre. The scripts can be useful but perhaps they can be ‘too' useful, in terms of ‘knowing' about what you want to do.

KB: Would you see it as resigning on linearity of the narration which ceases to be prosaic, or is prosaic in a very kind of avant-garde, experimental way. Which leads me to "political lyricism" you said you took from and after Derek Jarman. Could you please elaborate a bit on that concept?

IJ: The thing about political lyricism is that you deliberately employing aesthetic strategies which in a way are lyrical and poetic and a deemed in a way to another moment in Modernist cinema and reinvigorating it with or imbuing it with certain content, certain subject matter. And at one point we can see some of these forms in the films of Jarman, in the films of Todd Haynes, and in the films of Tom Kalin, and this moment was called "New Queer Cinema."6 So it is like the last time that we see the aesthetics that has been twined with a kind of political strategy that brings together visual meditation on politics. It is a way of thinking with images. It is like poetic use of images. We could see it in different kinds of modernist art cinema: in Pasolini's work, in Visconti, Chantal Akerman, that kind of political modernism. We have lost that way of thinking through images. It happens a little bit in the film and art world, not that much though. I am aiming for the rearticulation of that in video art.

KB: In one of the interviews on the occasion of the release of your film "Derek" Tilda Swinton who is a very important figure in that work, said if there is a heir of Derek Jarman, it is Isaac. In what sense would you feel the heir of Jarman and what kind of heritage would that be?

IJ: To be honest, I have always felt to be my own person. I was making films when Derek Jarman was making films and I would say that Derek was someone who was a catalyst, someone who was at the forefront of a certain notion of British cinema, that is long gone. My voice is connected to Derek's but I am not his heir. It is not a bad place to inherit, don't get me wrong. What I am trying to say here is I have always been involved in a cinema that is influenced by Derek but poses different questions really, I think. I call it postcinematic, which could be seen as an orthodoxy now in the moving image part of the art world.

KB: What I find extremely fascinating in your work, is not only the aesthetic and political aspect of it, but something I would call epistemological aspect of it. Namely, the idea "who feels it, knows it" which stands behind your work and which I think implies completely different concept of knowledge and awareness. It seems to me to be about the knowledge that comes from affect in the stead of rationality and the modalities of Western (white) logic. What I find in your work is an attempt at changing the structure of affect as a very political and very radical stance. This restructuring of affect and knowledge seems important if not indispensable in the context of the so-called colonial and post-colonial studies (also in the context of art).

IJ: I think is has a lot to do with what I have been doing. This affective aesthetic strategy is a part of WESTERN UNION: small boats as well. And it is probably the most unsettling part. If you are going to take the idea of "who feels it, knows it", it is a different ordering of knowledge. And I am interested in re-reading the spaces of Europe. I know this continent very, very well. I was born here and I have been here nearly 50 years now, I am Black-European, I am as connected to different cultures which belong to Europe as you are, and also to elsewhere! So it is about re-articulating the Creole archive. In the epistemological sense, even if I think about Creole language, which is the language my parents spoke, it has its own knowledge which is different from that which was then the master's knowledge. Nonetheless it was a version of French. And I think in a way sometimes my work is like that. It is like a versioning of, reading of certain modernities, but it is a slightly different mode. So perhaps this is why it is looking a little bit odd to some. Like a miming of things, but it comes out differently. It is also about using the knowledges that you acquire when you research something, but your positionality is different because of who you are. I am not a migrant, even if I come from a migrant background. Maybe I am speaking nearby and it is this kind of knowledge that is coming through, producing its own methodology. It is going to look different, it is going to feel different.


KB: And yet there is not a slightest trace of didacticism in you work which I find truly exceptional. I think it is owning to a unique mixture of different artistic genres and expectations, different experience that your work allows for within the gallery space. So what I see here is not only the deconstruction of the genres and subject matters, or knowledge for that matter, but also the expectations of the viewer and his/her experience of being the viewer as such. This combination is absolutely uncanny, as you intimated, but also, very revelatory as it goes in a different direction, different to the one already established within the gallery space.

Coming back to WESTERN UNION: small boats, I would like to point to your playing with the somewhat mythologised or even romanticised narrative or history of Sicily, or even Mediterranean as such as it exists in popular knowledge or culture, and with different cultural texts on Sicily such as already mentioned "The Leopard" which belong to high culture. In a sense you traumatise Mediterranean which has not existed in that sense7.

IJ: I think it has always been but it was forgotten. If you read Iain Chambers' book Mediterranean Crossings, he talks about that 8. He has also written a text for the exhibition catalogue. For the last 15 to 20 years he has been teaching cultural and postcolonial studies at the Università degli Studi di Napoli, "l'Orientale," in Italy. In his book he talks about the Ottoman Empire and all of those aspects of the Mediterranean which make it such a complexity of cultures that we find ourselves attracted to, but at the same time, is a transitional contact zone which is always a zone of incommensurable differences. In his text he alludes to that, and his book seems to me a new kind of scholarship. I have befriended a group of Italian scholars who have been thinking about this project since 1985. I go to Italy every year, and participate in the school in Naples which teaches cultural studies - or what we might now call Mediterranean cultural studies.

KB: Would you say it is a kind of working through repressed history...

IJ: of Mediterranean, absolutely! It is there in architecture. You can see it if you go to Granada, for example, all the Muslim architecture, it is all there. In a way it is a bit of a nonsense really this idea of erasing of ‘us' and ‘them'. It is in the food, music, even in how some people look.

KB: This seems to me especially fascinating in the context of this part of the world, Central, Easter-European one, which is so attached to its own historical, including recent historical, traumas, sometimes not realising the whole old good continent is just boiling with them. This discovery and rediscovery at the same time is a component of a wider movement of learning Europe's other histories, or histories of the other, if you like.

IJ: I think WESTERN UNION: small boats is also a project about location and dislocation. It is not only about bodies, but also about spaces and who has the right to be in certain spaces. In that sense it is an exploration of space and the politics of space. And the way I am using choreography and dance explores that, it is just in a different language. I think it is not only about the postcolonial discourse but also other discourses that have been developing around space: I think about the writing of Doreen Massey, among others, and how she formulates the questions of space and globalisation. 9.

KB: Once you said, in relation to your earlier films, dealing with racial and gender issues, that you are not speaking for those people (Black and/or gay) but from their perspective. How would you identify your stance in case of works done lately, say works dealing with troubled space and history?

IJ: I should say I have always seen my work as made from the Other's point of view. But also it is a collaboration with many other views, and it is always a particular collaboration that makes one intervention unique, be it in the gallery space, in the cinema or at the academy. Different sorts of interventions produced within different sites. I remain somewhere in the middle, that would be my current position.

KB: Why would that be?

IJ: I don't trust these institutions enough to stay in a single one of them. They are all just spaces. It is really taking up the question of interdisciplinarity and acting upon this interdisciplinarity in one's practice, not only in the position(s) one choses but also in the forms through which one formulates one's interventions.

Warsaw, April 2009

Polish text here

  1. 1. See. http://www.rmcompany.co.uk/Site/Home.html
  2. 2. Push (2005), and more recently, Eonnagata (2009).
  3. 3. The title refers to Michel Leiris' L'Afrique fantôme (in: Miroir de l'Afrique [Paris: Gallimard, 1996] ) which is an example of the scientific travel journal of a lengthy literary and scientific tradition. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this genre of writing raised an issue which Bataille also raised, as did the Surrealists, involving the status of the document, the position of the subject, and the problem of observation. It simultaneously questioned the insights of science and the practices of art, particularly in painting and literature and it also questioned the assumptions of European superiority and rational thought.
  4. 4. In 1930-1931, there was an expedition to Africa sponsored by the Musée de l'Homme in Paris which travelled across French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa from Dakar to Djibouti. It was led by the ethnographer, Marcel Griaule. The secretary of the mission was Michel Leiris, a Surrealist and ethnographer, who, along with Georges Bataille, edited the journal Documents in 1929-1930. It touched upon and brought together areas of ethnography, painting, sculpture, sociology, Surrealism, the avant-garde. Leiris published a journal of the Dakar-Djibouti expedition, L'Afrique fantôme, which concerned the ethnographic "document" and the "art" of Africa and how these might be regarded and it dealt with the issue what credence could one give to the observations of the ethnographer. The movement and connectives in Leiris' journal look back to Freud, and forward, over a wide range, to figures like Lacan, Lévi-Strauss, Pasolini, Jean Rouch, Jean-Luc Godard.
  5. 5. Presented in 2006 at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, on the occasion of the exhibition Touch My Shadows. New Media from Goetz Collection
  6. 6. Term coined in 1992 by North American feminist and critic, B. Ruby Rich in her article published in Sight & Sound magazine which dealt with strong gay presence on the previous year's film festival circuit. She analysed films that were radical in form and aggressive in their espousal of sexual identities which challenged both the heteronormative status quo and the promotion of positive images of lesbians and gay men that had been advocated by the gay liberation movement for more than ten years: films such as Todd Haynes's Poison, Isaac Julien's Young Soul Rebels, Derek Jarman's Edward II, Tom Kalin's Swoon, and Gregg Araki's The Living End.
  7. 7. The "Mediterranean" as a concept entered the European lexicon only in the early nineteenth century. As an object of study, it is the product of modern geographical, political, and historical classifications.
  8. 8. See. Mediterranean Crossings: The Politics of an Interrupted Modernity. (Duke University Press, 2008). Chambers is also the author of several books, including Culture after Humanism: History, Culture and Subjectivity; Migrancy, Culture, Identity; and Border Dialogues: Journeys in Postmodernity.
  9. 9. See: Massey For Space (London: Sage, 2005); Space, place, and gender. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1994), among others.