Interview: Eve Sussman

by Noah Simblist

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      Eve Sussman
      Stills from Episode 01 of White on White: A Country Road. A Tree. Evening.2009
      Courtesy the artist

      Eve Sussman was recently in Austin for a screening of her film The Rape of the Sabine Women (2007) sponsored by Arthouse. Noah Simblist sat down with her to talk about this film, her production company The Rufus Corporation and her ongoing work-in-progress White on White.

      …might be good [mbg]: What’s the Rufus Corporation?

      Eve Sussman [ES]: Partly, it’s a way of referring to work that’s made by a lot of people working together. I’m the director, but as with any sort of feature film, you’ve got a lot of people working on it. I think it’s important to refer to that group of people as a company. But there’s a conceit to the Rufus Corporation as well; in this country, you’re much more powerful as a company than as an individual. Whether you’re ordering two-by-fours or computers or filming materials, the first thing the sales rep asks is “what company do you come from?” It immediately empowers you on a different level as soon as you are a company. So of course I’m a company. Why wouldn’t everyone just be a company?

      The concept behind the Rufus Corporation came out of that mid-century American idea of the evil think-tank, too. I remember being completely intrigued as a kid by entities like the Rand Corporation, these organizations that were basically pushing the Vietnam War. So I thought, well, I can create an evil think tank, too. I can harness that power.

      mbg: I noticed that in the section on your website that describes what the Rufus Corporation is, it discusses the relative merits of being a nonprofit or for profit entity.

      ES: We’re a for profit company. We’ve considered becoming a nonprofit, and there are a lot of reasons to do it, and a lot of reasons not to do it. In reality, Rufus Corporation will remain a for-profit company. (Not that we’re profitable at the moment; I don’t know whether anyone is. But we have been profitable, and maybe one day we will be again.) Of course, we’ve worked with nonprofits, because other nonprofits are my umbrella organizations. I can’t apply to the New York State Council as an individual, and I can’t apply as a company. As an individual artist, I have to go to XYZ nonprofit and they’re my umbrella organization. But there are people who turn their practice over to a nonprofit—choreographers who run dance companies, for example. So I’ve thought that maybe we should form a nonprofit in addition to our for-profit, a nonprofit that could be responsible for some of the creation of this work, and maybe not just Rufus Corporation work but other people’s work also. The nonprofit thing is tricky because of issues about rights and ownership. If the nonprofit is the creator of the work, you (the artist) don’t actually own the work anymore. If the nonprofit commissions you as an individual you do—it’s just legally tricky… Right now it’s simpler to be a business and an artist with a studio. Rufus Corporation is my business and it employs me.

      mbg: So an example of a nonprofit that acted as an umbrella for you would be Creative Time for Rape of the Sabine Women?

      ES: In that case, Creative Time was the presenter of the work for its premier in New York. They weren’t the producers. My main non-profit umbrella is Smackmellon, a really great Brooklyn based organization. I was the main producer of the Rape of the Sabine Women and there were a number of collectors that came in early on (a couple who pre-bought the work), and there was a big grant from Germany and smaller grants in New York and Athens. We never had all the money at once. When we needed some money, I’d sell some work or get a grant or more often than not reach for the credit cards and hope it would all work out. It was a constant shuffle to try to keep going.

      mbg: So what did Creative Time do for US premiere in NYC?

      ES: Creative Time made it possible to premier the film at the IFC for a week and present the first two shows with the score played live by the musicians – that was a big and expensive undertaking. Jonathan Belper, the composer, took a lot of the score out of the mix and the musicians did the coughing choir, the bouzoukis and the knife performance live. The musicians were in the audience with these huge butcher knives. It was wild. They walked out wearing aprons brandishing the knives. Two of our actresses came from Athens and did some of the vocalizing and singing in the aisles, which shocked the audience as well, since they were seated in the audience and got up mid-film and started yelling.

      mbg: That effect was recreated with the surround sound system in the theater in Austin. Yesterday, when I saw the piece again, I was thinking about the moment in the meat market when the women are abducted. Were you thinking of the meat market as an allegory for the whole film, women having a certain role in relationship to war?

      ES: No, I wasn’t thinking about it that literally...It was much more important to me to look at mid-century media, the Life magazines, the news reels, the television. On the one hand, you could say the meat market is such an obvious choice for the abduction of women, what a ridiculous metaphor. But on the other hand, the space felt so earthy, almost medieval—it didn’t feel mid-century at all.

      My initial vision for the film was that the entire thing would take place in a market, from the abduction to the fight, which would have been cool too. I’m really into markets. I grew up partly in India and Turkey, places where you have a market culture. The idea of that third world market is so real, it has such a sense of humanity and earthiness—a humanity and earthiness that we’ve cleansed out of American culture. It wasn’t really the meat as a stand in for women that interested me. It was more the way the market gets down to basic things about life and the way people behave. We shot one day with the market open and one day with the market closed. Days when the market is open, it’s packed. And it’s like, yeah, this shit could happen here. I’m sure someone could get abducted from this market and you wouldn’t even know it was happening.

      mbg: That was what was amazing, there was the sharpening of the knives and the cutting of the meat and you didn’t really have to show any violence what so ever. It was done with very simple gestures.

      ES: Actually, we filmed all these choreographies around the abductions, and then in the editing process we cut out the moments when somebody actually disappears. Because you never see those moments, it creates a tension.

      mbg: That sense of the earthiness reflected in both the realness and falseness of the market seems to come up again as a strategy when we see behind the scenes where the cameras are visible, for instance.

      ES: We had a lot more of those shots breaking down the theatricality of the film in the first cut. I really liked it, but a lot of people said those shots were killing the viewer’s ability to stay with the fantasticness of the myth. So finally I just had to say, I guess they’re right and I guess I’m wrong.

      I’m really interested in the way, when you walk into a typical feature film, you suspend disbelief and decide to get sucked into the film. I was interested in seeing whether I could create a psychological shift in the audience, a shift from believing the characters, to believing the theatricality of it and then back to believing the documentary aspect of making a movie. So initially, I wanted to switch back and forth between reality and fantasy more. I recently watched Truffaut’s Day For Night (1973), and he goes back and forth between the creation of the movie and the movie a lot, and I thought yeah, this doesn’t work very well. So maybe it’s better not to play that trick too often.

      mbg: In some sense having the actors and musicians in the audience, as you did for the New York premier, makes it both more real and less real.

      ES: There is that part in the very beginning of the film when you see the people getting ready. We’re in the Herodium Theater dressing rooms across from the Acropolis. It says, “this is a piece of theater.” I felt like yeah I’m going to remind you this is a piece of theater. But very quickly we’re so geared to believe that the thing on the screen is real. But in reality, the only real thing is the metaphor, the idea, that’s where the reality actually is.

      mbg: What were you thinking about when you chose the setting for the film to be the 60s?

      ES: Originally, we thought the film might run through time. But when we actually started working in Greece, we realized that everybody goes to Greece for the ancient stuff. That’s what’s so famous there, right? But what was so astounding to us was the classic modernism. The architecture from the nineteen thirties to the sixties. The main building from this period that we used in the film was the Valsamakis House, which was our metaphor for the heyday of Rome. Once we started getting into all that amazing modernist architecture in Athens, as well as all the magazines and films from the period, it seemed perfect. It was such a mythical time—the way the gender gap manifested itself, the ideas about how to behave and present oneself. The myths about men and women meant so much, and that’s what this film is about: these forces of desire and longing and power and how this gender gap behaves in relationship to them.

      mbg: I saw the Rape at The Henry Art Gallery immediately after the recent student protests in Athens, and I couldn’t help thinking about that 60s moment of protest in the US and Europe.

      ES: The late 60s brought that upheaval, and we couched the film in the early sixties, but when you look at the final fight scene, it could have been a really big love fest, one of my actresses said, "are we doing a big orgy at the end?" No, but if you want to think about it that way, fine.

      It’s supposed to look like those friezes on the Pergamon that you see in the beginning of the film; is it war or is it lust? It’s all about power. Everything falls away, the dresses, the hairdos, the architecture all those accoutrements that give meaning to this idea of the perfect life are destroyed. Of course everything goes back to dust, there’s no happy ending. There’s just an ending, not happy or sad.

      mbg: To do this in 2005, as America was in the middle of a huge amount of upheaval in relationship to the Iraq war. Did you think about this depiction of war as influenced by that in any way?

      ES: I didn’t think of the piece as an overtly political piece. People apply a lot of politics and feminism to it, and on a certain level, that’s fair, but I don’t consider myself a didactic-political artist. The new piece we’re making is most political thing we’ve ever done. I’m really more interested in filming psychological conditions—loneliness, desire, ubiquitous and cunning aspects of the human condition. I’m interested in those things that defy time, no matter how much the world is changing. Our psychological set of feelings as human beings actually doesn’t advance. Love, hate, guilt, jealousy, we haven’t invented any new words to define how we’re feeling, because there are no new emotions. Emotion defies time. Therefore, I’m interested in group dynamics and how they change the way people act at different times in history, but the way we are as individuals, I don’t think it changes. I don’t think we’re any more complicated that we were 2000 years ago. I could be eternally interested in just putting a bunch of people in a room and seeing what happens, that’s always really exciting.

      mbg: You said your new piece might be more political?

      ES: It’s about a fantasy city, I’m filming in central Asia, and what’s striking to me there is the collision of communism and capitalism. We were taught these two regimes should be diametrically opposed to each other and now they’re married, and the way they’re married in these post-soviet countries is so ironic. It’s about power. How do you subvert that power for yourself, what people do to grab power, if I’m socialist one minute and capitalist the next, that’s all about having your chameleon moment to grab power. That conflation of communism and capitalism into one monster is really interesting, and I’m not trying to make some moralizing political statement about it, I’m just really intrigued by the transformation. It’s so rich if you want to do a high-kitsch film noir, which is what I’m trying to do. So we’ve gone four times in the last two years and we have about 100 hours of footage and we’re probably going to shoot a little bit more, but now it’s a lot to do with figuring out the edit. We’re working with one English speaking actor and Russian speaking actors, so we had simultaneous translation and improv with people who didn’t speak the same language. Now we’re doing a lot with overdub and voiceover and making up the dialogue in retrospect, in both Russian and English.

      One of the ways we’re releasing White on White is in installments. The first installment is in an edition of 100, and it comes on an Archos screen. You get the device with the edition. It’s $450 so it’s affordable for people who aren’t big collectors. It’s also internet capable, so as we make new episodes we can stream them to the player. I like the idea, we’ll see if it works. It’s also about making the piece much more accessible for a much wider audience. Coming up with a different model, I make my living in the art world, not the film world, and the beauty of the art world is that you don’t need 100,000 people to like your work, which means you can be much more experimental…

      mbg: It’s so intimate to be holding the screen that you’re watching the film on.

      ES: I’m impressed how well it works. It also works as a way of letting people be part of the production. It’s a way of getting 100 people to come in as co-producers on a lower level, rather than a just three people at a high level.

      mbg: How did White on White develop?

      ES: The idea for White on White came out of sort of a joke actually. Jeff Wood, a long time Rufus Corporation collaborator and actor/writer, kept saying, as part of his character, “I’m going to space”. I was like, “yeah, right”, and he said “I’m serious.” And I was like, “well, I don’t really care about going to space, but I’m really into watching you try.” At the same time another friend of mine asked, “well, Eve, what’s the third painting?” It’s a trilogy, you’ve gotta make a third painting. And I’m kind of sarcastic, so I say, “White on White” that’s my image, you know, it was a little bit of a “fuck you.” Then it dawned on us that a film about his desire for space and my desire to film white on white worked perfectly together...from there we tried to get to Baikonur. You can read about it on our website.

      Noah Simblist is an artist, writer and Assistant Professor of Art at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. His work explores the political role of the artist, the history of abstraction and the ideas of home, borders and exile in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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