Interview: Johan Grimonprez
by Kelly Sears
In his video and film installations, Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez critically deconstructs received histories and media representations, wryly combining fact and fiction to create new narratives. Houston-based filmmaker Kelly Sears spoke with Grimonprez in January about his process, the psychoanalytic undercurrent of contemporary media and conspiracy theories on the occasion of the opening of his exhibition It’s a Poor Sort of Memory that Only Works Backwards at the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston. The exhibition remains on view through April 2.
Kelly Sears [KS]: For the readers of …mbg who have not seen DOUBLE TAKE (2009) or Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997), could you give a brief overview of those works?
Johan Grimonprez [JG]: These are the better-known films. DOUBLE TAKE was shown at Sundance, in the cinema in New York, and is now on DVD and probably on Netflix. DOUBLE TAKE looks back at the beginning of the ‘60s, the culture of film and film history and the rivalry between cinema and television and how that plays into the Cold War. It’s done through the image and the icon of Alfred Hitchcock because he took on both mediums. When he crossed over from film to television it’s so interesting how it’s all about the commercial break, and the commercial break is such a crucial thing because it forced us to look at the world in a very different way. Hitchcock was so upset because his suspense plot was all of a sudden interrupted every ten minutes by commercials, and so what you see when Hitchcock did all these introductions on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he was really pointing the gun at the sponsor in a very sardonic way. The joke was always at the cost of the sponsor.
Both films (Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y and DOUBLE TAKE) look at mainstream media—it is a media archeology—but at the same time it looks at mainstream icons and imagery. DOUBLE TAKE is about Hitchcock but Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is the chronology of airplane hijacking. It’s a way to look at how that composite relationship with media has come about, and how that has changed the way we relate to those big media events. You have in Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, which is taken from a book by Don DeLillo, a dialogue set up between a terrorist and a novelist. The novelist contends that the terrorist has taken over his role because he’s able to “play the media,” because television and media is so present in our society, and that the writer has become an obsolete figure. Of course the way Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y analyzes that dialogue is that it’s set and it moves on towards the ‘90s. It looks at the hijacker trying to grab attention in the media. Now there’s even the “hijacker’s hijacker.”
The terrorist has become a spectacle, and they’re even accommodated from the ‘80s onward with Reagan and Thatcher. Even 9/11 was welcome, in a way, to put more political control out there, to actually start wars “in the name of,” etc. So the way we would look at those things is very different than what was going on in the ‘60s. The big shift was ’75 because of the counter-terrorist forces. Before, they adopted the doctrine: shoot the terrorist on site, one bullet in the heart, one bullet in the head. Another doctrine was: don’t mention it in the news. If there is an attack, make the least possible noise about it. Don’t have interviews with the terrorists; don’t show their faces on television; make them anonymous, don’t personalize them, etc. So the codes changed.
[KS]: Something else that interests me in your work is the way that fiction is used. Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is based on DeLillo’s text, and DOUBLE TAKE is written by Tom McCarthy and ultimately jumps off Borges’ short story. I think it’s a really wonderful element in your work that you deal with history or histories but you do it in this way that’s kind of grounded in a fictional storytelling.
[JG]: Ultimately this is going to touch upon what John Mack calls the ontological consensus. He wrote Island of the Ancestors. When you start talking about fictions and reality, you even could be as profane as weapons of mass destruction, because even in politics, fictions proliferate and suddenly it becomes a horrible reality. Even the documentary tradition, like Nanook of the North by Flaherty, was presented like a fiction of the fight of humans against nature. His wives were the mistresses of Flaherty himself, and the igloo was like a theater set, cut in half so they could fit the cameras in it. So when you talk about documentary, already you have to ask, what are the boundaries of documentary? Even in reality, we always project a picture of ourselves based on fictions. Not to say that reality doesn’t exist but I think it’s conventions we agree upon. I like to explore that in the films.
Films always try to touch on those boundaries and push the boundaries of how we can tell a story. But it’s not only film. This morning we were talking about how those Folgers commercials from the ‘50s also function as pure documentaries. They are documents displaced in time.
[KS]: They become a time capsule of all the politics and…
[JG]: Exactly, like what was in the fridge, or how women were perceived in society. It’s interesting that you can pick through old coffee commercials and when suddenly when the Psycho music (but it’s not Psycho music by Bernard Herrmann, it’s music composed to sound like that) slips underneath the commercial, when the man trashes the woman and says “You can’t make coffee,” the woman is coded as taking revenge, and also suddenly the Folgers becomes the poison. You can use that to construct a narrative.
On a bigger level, when you work with images that are dealing with more of the global politics than the micropolitical, you can extend the narrative from the man and wife in the kitchen to the Kitchen Debate between Khrushchev and Nixon, for example, the bigger situation between East and West. There, theater was propagated, and it’s happening more than ever, like what’s going on with swine flu.
[KS]: I’ve been watching a lot of ‘70s science fiction lately and the plots of those are in conversation with a lot of contemporary political events.
[JG]: They say it always rains in science fiction after Blade Runner. Because suddenly you have that idea of a dystopian future that science fiction doesn’t project anymore. And of course it’s that imaginary other that is being projected as well. Constance Penley and Vivian Sobchack write about that in Close Encounters: Film, Feminism and Science Fiction, when they talk about alien abduction and horror movies and how they are stands for something that lives underneath. Even how Žižek talks about 9/11, that is sort of repressed political unconscious coming back to haunt America as the Real.
[KS]: There’s something else I want to ask about how you put work together. I heard that DOUBLE TAKE was initially a short film that you were shooting on the Hitchcock double, and as his story grew and as you started researching, your project grew into a bigger film and this much larger network of conversations. Can you recall certain paths in your research that ended up shooting the project in all these different directions?
[JG]: At one point I remember that we invited Tom McCarthy for a writing weekend. I had put together a rough cut of two hours, but there was a little bit of the Kitchen Debate and not so much of the Cold War. We saw that that what was going on between East and West in the Cold War mirrored that intimate conversation between Hitchcock and Hitchcock, where one is trying to get rid of the other. We could talk about politics in an intimate way, and suddenly intimate things become a Cold War. That’s what Hitchcock also did. He would libidinize the plot. It’s what happens with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest: the love story grows with the political picture.
So it was first a smaller story with the Ron Burrage interview. But to extend that idea of the doppelganger towards the political climate, towards the bigger political picture, was an element that really helped to make that film have a double strand. When I was invited by the Hammer Museum to be on the premises of UCLA to do research at the Film and Television Archives, the first thing we researched was the Kitchen Debates. I was surprised to see the whole Cuban Missile Crisis was very much happening at the moment when Truffaut met Hitchcock and when Hitchcock was working on The Birds—hence also “the birds,” because they are a metaphor of that catastrophic culture of descending onto the home, which has also become a metaphor for television. That became sort of the background for the whole thing as well. So I tied the Kennedy/Khrushchev standoff to the Cuban Missile Crisis, because that was really the point where the world was on the brink of nuclear holocaust, and the birds. Fellini called Hitchcock’s The Birds an apocalyptic poem.
[KS]: That’s actually a wonderful way to think about it. I think that description could be applied to your work.
[JG]: Or what’s going on today. To go back and research what was going on during the rise of television… it’s not much different than the cultural fear now. But today it’s even worse.
[KS]: Going back to television, I’d like to talk about the installation with the remote control. Thinking about both the television and the remote control as these ideological apparatuses that are devices through which we engage with corporate messages, state messages… How do you see those kinds of apparatuses in dialogue with these histories that you’re working with?
[JG]: There’s that other work, which is called Maybe the Sky is Really Green and We're Just Color Blind with the subtitle On Zapping: Close Encounters and The Commercial Break. It’s about the history of the remote control in relation to the commercial break. In Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, when I was studying in New York, a big source of inspiration was the first Gulf War, the first Iraq War, as portrayed on CNN. I saw what CNN did with war footage and then all these commercials spliced in between. I thought of the zapping as the ultimate form of poetry. It’s a visual poem.
[KS]: It’s editing.
[JG]: It’s also a way to work through the whole material of Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y. It became sort of a tool of how you tell a story. We are developing it as a work on Zapomatik.com—it’s not live yet—where you can actually surf or navigate through all the different themes that are related to the commercial break in relation to the history of the remote control; for example, things like the TV dinner.
[KS]: We were talking a little bit about DOUBLE TAKE, where Hitchcock and the ‘double’ become a larger metaphor for capitalism and communism, and Cold War espionage, and this gesture of the McGuffin. Thinking about Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, you’re using hijacking as a form of metaphor. How does that metaphor play into the larger histories that are included in that film? Where is that hijacking metaphor playing out? In a way, you’re kind of hijacking that old footage for your own piece.
[JG]: That’s a tool. You could work through that material by the Situationist strategy, what they call détournement. You could spin and twist those images and sounds around, and code them with your own meaning. But on a bigger scale I don’t know. For example I think this country has been hijacked by corporations. There’s no more politics, there’s only corporate lobbying. The same thing is going on in Europe. I thought all this GM food wouldn’t come and those crops wouldn’t be planted in Europe, but now they’re all totally being sold out. It’s the same with the war. You don’t have any more reporters; they just advertise for corporations. So when you talk about hijacking, maybe reality’s being hijacked. I think that’s what we should be talking about.
DOUBLE TAKE is a double take on Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, but it’s also East and West and the doppelganger. When Freud talks about the uncanny he says that it’s when you don’t come to terms with the other. It’s this certain blindness where you only project your own fears and you don’t see the other. The man who doesn’t acknowledge the fact that there’s a person in front of him is only seeing his double, and it’s the same in the political game. And now even worse, if the double drops away, the imaginary other is not filled in, and you have all these aliens standing in for the collapse of the Soviet Union. And then you have the X-files and Independence Day that shoots the White House to smithereens. (laughs) All we have to fill this imaginary other is the image of Bin Laden, because if not, we’re going to go mad. The image of the doppelganger is totally lost, but then it runs amuck and that double can’t face himself. It’s now what we’re facing today I think. They claim the end of history but it’s the beginning of “long live the conspiracy” reality.
Kelly Sears is an animator and filmmaker based in Houston, TX.