Interview: Omer Fast
by Noah Simblist
Omer Fast’s video installation 5000 Feet is Best (2011) was recently purchased by the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) and is on view through September 30. After a lecture at the DMA by Fast, he talked with Noah Simblist about his work.
Noah Simblist [NS]: I’ve been looking over some press about you and there was a piece in Texte zur Kunst where Mark Godfrey talks about how your character in The Casting (2007) says that you’re not so interested in politics per se and more interested in the way that memories lead to stories and stories themselves are broadcast. I’m wondering how you feel about that and how politics function in your work.
Omer Fast [OF]: Let me address what specifically happens in The Casting. This work actually started as research trip for what I was hoping would be more of a standard documentary work to be shot in Fort Irwin in the Mohave Desert in California. In this military base they had built simulations of Iraqi villages and towns in which soldiers were trained prior to being sent to Iraq during the war. While waiting for my film permit from the Army, I went to Fort Hood in Texas to speak with soldiers who had undergone the training and then experienced their first tour in Iraq subsequently. The Casting kind of grew out of that. When I came back from Fort Hood and realized that no definitive answer would be forthcoming from my contact at the Army’s Department of Public Affairs, I decided to focus on the interviews instead. At that point, I didn't think it would be enough to cull and edit the interviews into something compelling about the soldiers' first-hand experience. I wanted to include a measure of the mediation that happens to their stories and the kind of forces and interests and desires that act upon them as they become a public narrative art piece. So I decided to add myself—or rather to project aspects of myself as a semi-fictional character—to the work. I thought this would function as a kind of self-critique of the role of the artist/interview, but also as a critique of what the work set about to do, namely to report someone's war experience. So the statement Mark Godfrey references should be understood in that light. It is not a definitive statement about who I am and what I believe in as a person. But within the dynamics of the work and the characters that are spun out in it, you have an unsympathetic artist who concludes an interview rather inconclusively by saying, “Thanks for your time. Your story is really interesting but... I’ll give you a call.” In a way, the work is being coy about its politics and about its subject.
[NS]: In terms of the impetus, what attracted you in the first place of going to Fort Irwin and the notion of the simulated Iraqi villages?
[OF]: I had done a couple of works beforehand, which dealt with historical events that had some kind of later reincarnation as part of a spectacle or a performance. One of them is called Spielberg’s List (2003). It dealt with the extras who appeared and performed in Steven Spielberg's film Shindler’s List. The other work was called Godville (2005) and was shot in Colonial Williamsburg. This is an open-air museum in Virginia, which is located in the actual colonial town center of Williamsburg. So the town is a strange hybrid, being a historical site but also a reenactment or contemporary performance of that historical site. The same way with the Spielberg extras, you had people who could talk in first-person about an experience that was historically resonant and at times for them also historically palpable. Some of the extras had actually experienced the events depicted in the movie in their early lives. But then they also took part in a big re-presentation of that event as extras in the filming of a Hollywood movie. Both pieces preceded The Casting and the idea of going out to this US military base called Fort Irwin. I suppose I was trying to see how this logic of reenactment applied to a very contemporary issue, namely the training of soldiers in preparation for a foreign mission: how that logic of simulation, of reenactment, performance, was being put into practice in this particular military base. But as I said, that plan didn’t pan out.
[NS]: It’s funny, this notion of a village to simulate a kind of Arab architectural structure reminds me of these pieces by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin and also Amir Yatsiv that have made artworks about these American designed fake cities for military training in Israel for similar purposes but instead of it being sited in Iraq, their fictional siting is supposed to be in Gaza or the West Bank. I know you don’t like to talk about your biography in general, but one thing I was interested in was the way that often in references to you, there are these descriptors of the ‘Israeli-born artist’ and I’m wondering about how you feel that nationality functions in your work in different ways.
[OF]: I grew up moving between two cultures and two countries with two languages and two very different modes of being. I think that made me very highly aware of how much one’s identity is a construction, very much a performance, at a very young age. I sort of had a crash course in that starting at the age of three. We moved a couple of times between Israel and the US and so I was very aware of assuming little bits and pieces of identity depending on where I was. I think that distrust and playfulness and the pleasure and awkwardness of it all – for me they have become the stuff that I use and exploit and address in my work.
[NS]: I was thinking about this connection between the US and Israel in your biography in relation to 5000 Feet is the Best just because the phenomenon of drones as a technology and drones in a legalistic sense is something that has a very intertwined relationship between Israel and the US. If I’m not mistaken, the tactic of using drones for assassinations was developed by Israel and continued by the US. I’m wondering if that’s something that you’ve thought about with 5000 Feet Is the Best or if you’ve thought about it exclusively within the American context.
[OF]: While researching drones I happened on a few details connecting Israeli engineering to the prototypes of the more recent drone models that are being used. But for me the notion of the drone as an image, as an idea, was very much more contemporary and therefore something I think as more “late term American” than anything to do with Israel. I think you could talk about drones in many different ways but what appeals to me is the inherent contradiction in being there and not being there: Being endowed with these almost superhuman powers of perception, of surveillance, of being able to control someone’s life, being able to be that proverbial “fly on the wall,” while, at the same time, being very far away and engaging in combat activities that are extremely violent and extremely graphic and difficult for the people doing them, let alone the people on the receiving end of the drones’ strike. This machine is a system. Because it’s not just a plane—it’s the transmission of data, it’s the satellites, it’s the remote stations that are located just outside of Las Vegas, it’s the people who drive there to work. This epitomizes globalization. It tries to ram through all these contradictions about precision warfare and targeted assassinations and is continually celebrated by these rather pithy statements about “another successful drone strike” and the fact that no American lives, of course, have been lost or been in danger at all. In many respects, the drone program really does embody some of the main contradictions of our age and it is therefore an interesting subject matter.
[NS]: It seems like the main character that is continuously being re-interviewed is popping these pills and it seems to be implied that he is a casualty, that there’s some kind of PTSD or something happening even though he’s not on the battlefield.
[OF]: That character is a bit of a screen, a bit of a chimera and a bit of a cliché almost. It’s very clear that the whole mock interview situation has been staged. For example, the interview keeps repeating with slight variations. There are quite a few heavy-handed movie tropes that are being used. There's a fictional character who’s being elusive and tries to spin the yarn, as it were. He ends up going out to a hotel corridor to smoke during breaks in his interview. That’s when he has a sort of trip and the film dips into documentary form when the voice of the real drone pilot speaks. So the work is as much about the drone program as it is about layers and screens and not being able to know exactly what’s happening. The work does try to present its subject in a way that is at least structurally elusive and multivalent.
[NS]: So that is the actual interview with the pilot and his face is sort of digitally obscured, right?
[OF]: Yes, he’s blurred and his voice is also disguised when he appears in the film. The whole thing was quite difficult to set up and so by the time we were able to sit in Las Vegas at the hotel, I realized that this person was way too nervous and it was quite difficult to get information from him. That’s the reason why the images and voice have been blurred. Of course, this is also a media cliché and it’s also so much a part of the drone program itself: this whole obscuring, the blurring, the presentation of the very very small tips of very very large icebergs of facts. So for good or for bad, I ended up reproducing that.
[NS]: I’m wondering about the setting. Was it premiered at Venice?
[NS]: Did you conceive of the piece thinking that it would be presented in that situation?
[OF]: That’s pretty much how it works. The pieces are relatively expensive so I have to wait for the phone to ring to get an invitation to do something and that’s what allows me to make my work. It doesn’t have to be that way and I hope it isn’t always that way, but for the last couple of years it’s been commission-based and so I very much know at the beginning what the deadline is and where it’s going to be shown. In this case it was Venice.
[NS]: I was thinking about Venice with all these national pavilions, that there’s this sense of nationalism and a kind of internationalism or a relationship between various nations that’s very self-conscious.
[OF]: I think it’s very retro. It’s an almost ridiculously retro ideal, that whole Venice scenario with nations building their little embassies and competing for best-in-show. It’s really a World’s Fair. Someone should really just lump it altogether and burn it. (laughs) My friend Jennifer Allen wrote about this and I wholeheartedly agree. I think in some respects the Documenta model acts as a counterpoint to Venice with its attempt at post-national politics. In this Documenta that I’m participating in, the artists aren’t even mentioned with birth countries or national tags attached to their names. We can argue about whether that’s good or not. Sometimes it helps to provide a context for where someone is coming. But not having that information frees people up to deal with the work without throwing it into some kind of very closed context.
[NS]: What piece is part of Documenta?
[OF]: It’s called Continuity.
[NS]: It’s interesting to me thinking about this continuity, even in this piece, which is about an enigmatic narrative of soldiers coming home from war. I’m thinking about the thread of the military in your work. The drone program seems to domesticate militarism and here the soldier and the home are rejoined. Even with Her Face is Covered (2011), a film of yours about the bombing of a truck convoy and one anonymous woman, there’s obviously the military scenario. It seems to recur again and again and I’m wondering about your attraction to these themes.
[OF]: I wonder about it too. I guess at some point attraction becomes a sort of compulsion and compulsion becomes an obsession and obsession becomes boring—or highly interesting (if you're lucky or if your name is Henry Darger.) To begin with, I think these subjects offer a vicariousness and a voyeurism. Then, if it starts with an encounter, there’s an element of sharing something, a therapeutic element. On the other hand, there’s also this playing with forms that I alluded to before when I was talking about biography. For example, looking at how a traumatic experience travels, the way that it ripples out from its ground zero and its point of origin and how it passes through different bodies and different layers of bodies in a particular community. In this new work Continuity, the trauma is completely bracketed. There's actually no documentary subject and it's highly doubtful that the characters who appear have actually lost their son in the end. What we have instead are aftershocks and an examination of the aftershocks… This idea of trauma, its presence and absence, the way it reverberates in time and in a community, is something that I grew up with on both sides of that ocean.
[NS]: It’s interesting talking about this notion of the continuity of trauma thinking about Spielberg’s List that you mentioned earlier because in some ways your approach to it didn’t take on the usual tropes of veneration that are common, certainly in America. I think that there are other artists in Israel and Europe like Artur Zmijewsky, Roee Rosen or Yael Bartana that are more comfortable with playing with the way that the Holocaust is represented. I wonder if you think of how the reception Spielberg’s List was different in different communities.
[OF]: I don’t have access to that. I have, at the most, two different ways of accessing reactions to the work. I have my friends and family, the people that I’m in touch with and most of the time they’re supportive—or they’re lying. And then I have the press that’s written. And this is a very specific, pointed, small category of press where we’ve all studied and read the same canon of texts and we all trade in the same language and ideas. I know that this work sometimes had a bigger audience because it played at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, for example. So there must have been a few people, at least ten of them, who have seen the work who are not either my friends or family. But I rarely get a chance to hear what these people have to say. We're pretty sequestered...
[NS]: Another piece that I was wondering about is Take a Deep Breath. Could you tell me a little bit about the project and how it started?
[OF]: I read a short article in an Israeli newspaper in 2002, written by the guy I eventually met and talked to for the piece. In the article, the guy describes going out for lunch and watching as the restaurant he intended to visit blow up just before he enters it. He then ran inside and discovered a young man whom he tried to resuscitate. The young man dies in his arms and the guy realizes later that he was the failed suicide bomber. A few months after reading the article, I was in Jerusalem and met with the guy. The idea was to force his story into a sitcom format. It’s kind of a movie within a movie in which an artist called Omer Fast is trying to dramatically film the suicide bomber's story. Of course things go wrong and so the conversations that emerge as the film within a film collapses are meant to talk about the ethical questions involved, aesthetic questions and so on and so forth. It’s kind of an attempt to have your cake and eat it too, but sometimes these attempts don’t work out so well.
[NS]: What was it about it that you didn’t think worked out so well?
[OF]: Comedy is a very hard genre and I’m not a gifted comic writer. I think the piece could have been better had it been written by someone who is a somewhat better at comedy. I think the piece is fine and it does what it’s meant to do. Inevitably, the shock of what happens when you pull away from a story and get behind the camera, behind the curtains, that shock fizzles away and what you’re left with is a kind of—what’s that movie? Living in Oblivion—you get this kind of ranting that really substitutes for comedy.
[NS]: At one point there’s this bit of dialogue where someone says, “Have you read Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others?” Were you thinking about her struggle with representations of violence for this piece or with your work in general?
[OF]: Of course my work and this particular piece deals with witnessing and the sublimation that happens when a traumatic event is experienced and then passed along. It deals with the wider collective responsibility for understanding the event, accounting for it, and remembering it. These are issues that my work deals with and that book was important for me. Probably that’s why it was able to worm its way into the work.
[NS]: Speaking if witnessing, I wonder about your use of subtitles in A Tank Translated (2002) and also in a book published about your work, In Memory, where you used footnotes like subtitles. The subtitles are less reliable than we might expect and as a result the source of truth is less reliable. I’m wondering if you find that the authority of truth is unreliable through things like journalism or the documentary format?
[OF]: I don’t. This is a major strain of talk about my work. I understand that way of looking at it, but I don’t particularly find it interesting. I don’t look at things in terms of truth and untruth, especially not when making my work. Of course we have important concepts like journalistic truth and a legal burden of proof that are necessary in order to function as a society but I think in my work I’m much more interested in different sorts of narrative strands and finding ways of weaving them together. Very often the work presents the story and the response to the story at the same time, rather than the truth and a fiction next to it. The response does not have to be a knee-jerk reaction. It can be something that is carefully constructed so that the dynamic between the story and the response to it might be more productive, more interesting, more dynamic... But I resist this binary categorization between truth and non-truth. I think that’s just not interesting.
[NS]: Is this because of your role as an artist as opposed to being a journalist or working in a legal framework? There’s a certain amount of freedom that that allows for without having to be burdened by that binary.
[OF]: Yes, of course we have the freedom to do that in the arts, whereas in journalism you have to do fact-checking and you have a legal accountability of what you’re saying in terms of libel... So there are obviously more restrictions on what you can do. But let’s not be naïve and say that what journalists write and what lawyers argue in court is the truth.
[NS]: In the lecture at the DMA, someone was asking you about this issue in relation to documentaries and you talked about these two terms, performance and index, as two ways of describing it. Can you say a little bit about what you meant by those terms?
[OF]: At the lecture in Dallas, I began with this piece Glendive Foley. In that piece the index is simply using a camera for recording time, recording events and spaces in time, people in time, etc. Attached to that function of the camera is a quite a complicated set of expectations regarding what it’s doing and its truth function. The indexical in that sense is simply turning the camera on and pointing it at a subject and recording it for a length of time. That recording creates a document. The document is very important for me because it does not only portray something in space and time but it actually has built into it that set of expectations that we talk about when we talk about the truth. After all, we do use cameras in order to establish the truth. That’s why cameras are used for surveillance, that’s why we use cameras in court, that’s why we use them for documentaries, that’s why we use them for mug shots. Let's call that the indexical. The performance is about taking those recorded documents and beginning to play around with their valences: those things that are attached to the pixels, the bits, the grain, the kind of set of expectations that I am talking about, the truth and whatnot... It’s not inherently in the material. It’s obviously accompanying the material very closely in how we read it. And so beginning to untangle those things and to put them into flux and to put them into motion with respect to various issues like aesthetics or ethics is really what I find interesting. That’s what motivates my work.
Noah Simblist is an Associate Professor of Art at SMU and a PhD student in art history at the University of Texas, Austin.