Portraits of Artists 47

Conversation with Douglas Gordon

Ami Barak: Douglas, in the beginning you often used texts in the form of statements, of mural inscriptions or a kind of profane sermon, such as "Nothing can be hidden forever." "I forgive you." "I have discovered a truth." Or phrases that have to do with forgetting – "I have forgotten everything." "I cannot remember anything." "I remember nothing." You also sent some letters, realized some phone works, performances, too. But what made you famous was the "24 Hour Psycho" and your relationship with cinema and its history. What is their relation, and how did you get to that point?

Douglas Gordon: I think, the text work that I had been doing and still do now and again, was probably quite a pragmatic mechanism. At that point – this was maybe around 1990 – and I was moving from London to Glasgow; there was a recognition there that Glasgow was far enough outside of the centre that it could be fairly autonomous, and there are all the plus points and all the negative points of that. A negative point, apparently, was that it was difficult to communicate as quickly with people. So I wanted to take this on and, in a way, to try and use the distance between Glasgow and other centres as a determining factor in the kind of work I wanted to make. And letters and telephone calls were the most obvious way to do it. Not only what is written in a letter and what is said in a telephone call but the fact that the telephone and letter communication systems are emblematic of a certain sophisticated system of communication which is dying already, being overtaken by newer technologies like the Internet or general computer communication. The idea of working with cinema was again because I was interested in certain systems of communication and cinema being similar to letters and telephone calls – it's dying already. I mean, it has only been around for 100 years but it's kind of dead. Certainly for a generation – say younger members of my family – cinema is finished. They've been brought up with a vocabulary of digital technology and all that stuff which is slightly alien to me. And there's only a difference here of maybe five or ten years. So, I'd always been interested in cinema, and I would say passively interested rather than taking it as a subject which I wanted to seriously investigate. It was a culture that you grew up with. It was probably the first universal culture that most people would recognize. You know, to think that at five years old, I would be sitting in a small house in Glasgow watching a Hollywood movie, and that someone else in a place that I'd never even dreamt of could be sitting and doing the same thing. So the universality of it was interesting. 
And I think that as far as "24 Hour Psycho" goes – I get asked the question a lot why I did it, how it happened – and I could tell you the truth or I could tell you various other stories. I mean, I'd always wanted to make a movie. But no one, no young person usually has the amount of money to realize exactly what he wants to do. And I'd always wanted my first movie to be some kind of epic. So that's one aspect of why I wanted to use an existing film. The other, which is really how I came to use that particular movie as opposed to any other, came out of boredom. I think, maybe two years before the piece you've seen, I'd been visiting family at Christmas time, and, as usually, you spend this time with your family and it can be quite boring. You know, the TV stops, there's no one to go for a drink with. And I wasn't tired, I wanted to just look at something. And my brother had a video tape of a Hitchcock film, and I just watched it. And then I started to look at different bits of the film. You know, this is three, four o'clock in the morning with nothing to do, and I just started to play with the freeze frame and the slow motion part of certain parts of the film. And then I watched longer sequences and the more I watched it, the more crazy the whole thing got. And I was interested then in the idea that you could take, say, a quite established form of post-structural theory, you could take a film to bits, image after image after image, and go from a point of oblivion to a point of clarity. But when you actually practised this, the opposite happened – you went from a point where you imagined you knew what was going to happen – half an hour later you'd forgotten where you were. And that chaos and the kind of topsy-turvy idea that structure implodes as soon as it's built up – I enjoyed it. And that's why I wanted to put it into public space. So it was on the one hand theoretical and anti-theoretical at the same time. The other thing is, it's quite sexy, film, and the slow motion – I think for my generation who has been brought up with access to video tapes – slow motion equates to sex at the same time, because you can watch things over and over again and see things that you're not supposed to see. So that's a voyeuristic thing, which is different from, say, cinema voyeurism. Video voyeurism, I think, seems to be quite different. So again, and it was taking the academic practice out of the academy and into the bedroom, and then out of the bedroom and into the gallery or the museum, and really seeing how chaotic this could be. But still would have something to hold it together. And that's, I suppose, with other work that I've made using found film – whether it be cinematic, of cinematic origin or from archives, film archives, documentaries. If you set it up to be seen in a certain way, you can encourage the type of chaos which I find enjoyable and necessary as a way to live. To me it's much more about what people carry away from an exhibition or away from an event – it's what happens in their heads that's important to me. And I can never find out what this is, but that's OK. I can live with that.

AB: So you manipulate images, and you transfer them to a plane which belongs to you. What type of questions do you thus set up?

DG: I think an open series of questions. I think just a very simple twist on something sets up all the questions that people have already, I think it's important that my role in the artwork is really only that of an instigator or an initiator of the questions – I don't want to provide the questions, I am certainly not going to provide the answers. So the line of questioning should already be, you know, in the heads of the people who come to see it. And I think the role of the artwork or the art context is just to provide people with time out to be able to let the questions bubble up to the top. Maybe questions that they keep pushed down. Because they should be quite vital questions of how you relate to other human beings – that's the basic thing. And if you come upon, say, a piece of film which is doing something quite unexpected, either through the presentation or through a slight manipulation of speed, then of course this can act as a big metaphor for exactly what happens when you step outside the door of the museum or outside the door of a gallery. And that kind of open questioning is still in the head. It's like using the sequences that I took from "Star Trek" that are quite erotic, quite violent, probably not what you would expect, like all the other sequences that everyone watches, but they seem in slightly slower motion. Someone asked me once if this is like trying to reveal hidden truths and – you know, that's not my job. I think if I could reveal hidden truths I wouldn't be around here. It's really just to engage a mechanism that I think most people have already, and to try and sustain that mechanism after they have the experience and take it out into everywhere else. This is the way that I think artists live.
You know, this reminds me of an informal talk that took place in Glasgow a couple of years ago. Someone, Lawrence Weiner, was in Glasgow and just talked about work and life and how there's not such a big difference. And someone from the floor asked, if this was a similar ethic to Josef Beuys' idea that everyone is an artist. And Lawrence said "No, that's a kind of fascism, not everyone should be an artist." I mean, it's plain, it's absolutely clear. So there is a difference between artists and people who are not, in the same way that there's a difference between a postman and an architect and a cook. There are some ways that an artist has a facility to think, because it's thinking in the context of the world all the time. I think good artists think in the context of the world all the time, and the not so interesting artists, for me, think in the context of the gallery all the time. And I think, the artists who I'm interested in, you know, my peer group, wherever they happen to be, try and kick-start this mechanism for other people. Once the mechanism's rolling, then it's the individual's responsibility to construct questions and find answers. But if the artist can give people the same kind of – I think, it's a kick to be able to be an artist, to be able to travel, to make exhibitions. You know, when we walk out the gallery door or out the museum door, you don't stop thinking in that way, you keep thinking in that way. And if other people can have at least some inkling of what that's like – yeah, of course it makes the world quite a confusing and interesting place, rather than straight back to the office. I hope. 

AB: The time factor is an essential datum in your work. That was clear in "24 Hour Psycho" but also in the "Searchers" shown at the Lyon Biennale, where the time of the film of John Ford, five years, becomes the time of your own video work. Why is the time parameter so important today in a plastic process?

DG: I'm not so sure that it's more important today than it was at any other time. I think maybe, as we are going towards the end of the 20th century, there's more of a consciousness of time because of the way you live your life – more images are generated 24 hours a day than ever before. So you're conscious of how much time these images take up and how little space there might be for an important image because it's being crowded out by an unimportant image. I think art and time – maybe it's always been the same; I don't know if time is any more important now than it was in Renaissance Italy. I suspect not. I think when you visit art from that period, then you're very conscious of time. Of how it could take half a person's life to be able to construct one tableau or to initiate some big sculptural project, and there's no reason why artists of my generation at this time don't, can't take this on as well. I mean, to go back to what I said about the differences between artists and other people, you've got to recognize that there's a difference between artists and other professionals and other thinkers. Obviously, I'm looking at the possible audience for anything that I might do, and the possible audience is always me. So on the one hand, I recognize there's a difference, but at the same time I have to see myself as the ideal viewer. What art allows you to do is to take time out, and that's not time out to be sleeping, it's time out to be thinking, because the way I live my life 24 hours a day, you're thinking, or you are not. Because we all do things without thinking. And I think maybe it's like moving the focal plane of your life to just spending a couple of hours where you're conscious of thinking rather than being unconscious of thinking. I mean, people can interpret that as quite a romantic gesture – I don't mind – it is a romantic gesture. It's also a way that you can live your life, just to be conscious of time. And I think works like "24 Hour Psycho" or the project with the "Searchers" really set these up again as a means to initiate the mechanism for people to be conscious of time and what's possible within certain time limits. No one's seen "24 Hour Psycho," no one will ever see the five year version of "The Searchers" – it doesn't matter, it's just a possibility. Again, the possibility that, since the Biennale in Lyon opened, some people might be wondering in another country what's happening back in Lyon. And again, that's interesting to me, that people can move a certain kind of consciousness around in space and time. So yeah, I think, it's a vital thing. I don't think it's any more vital now than it ever has been in the past.

AB: In your other works, such as "Star Trek" for example or "10 ms-1" or "Hysterical," you are also concerned with violence. It is overpowering on the screen, and it functions in your works in the most insidious way. One realizes it afterwards, on the rebound. Is it a lesson, an alarm signal you want to pull on the reality of images and the margin of manipulations they allow?

DG: I'm not quite sure. I agree, in a lot of my work there is violence. But for me it's not set out to be a lesson. This question has come up before about a certain moral undertone in some of the work, and more than just a moral question. There have been accusations of Calvinism, but, you know, this is my background. I was brought up in a very religious atmosphere in the west of Scotland. And I suppose I took it seriously. I was quite, I am quite, a worrier, I worry about things. I see things. I think about them a lot. It's just been my education, it's the way I live my life. So the violence that might be implicit in some of the work that you mentioned – and even in other works – there's certainly implicit violence in some of the text work, psychological violence as well as physical violence – it's certainly not, no, it's not a lesson. I'm intrigued by it, it's an extreme of human behaviour, and I'm interested in it because of that. I'm more interested in psychological violence than in physical violence; I'm more conscious of it now than I was, say, ten or fifteen years ago. I think moral issues, moral questions are important. I think it's important for my generation. You know this is an almost completely secular society run along the lines of a law which was based on the clerical system, the Christian system. So that contradiction interests me. You know, you try and live your life according to your peer group but everyone is under a blanket of authority which philosophically you don't actually have anything to do with anymore. And I think there's a lot of tension in the world because of this. So this inevitably raises questions as to the construction of a new or at least a personal morality, and that morality is mediated to us, for us and by us predominantly through the moving image. I think you could almost take any moving image and put it in a context where people could think about it, call it an art context and immediately, there is a moral question. Because generally, things are never looked at in depth. But even if you introduce the banalities of MTV into an art situation, then there will be moral questions to be answered. So that's good, because it's not just me who's initiating a moral debate, it's the fact of art that is a moral fact. And that's why, in every country, people have to protect the right to art space because it gives possibilities for moral questioning to happen and for answers to be thrown on the table and be discussed. And if we don't sustain this kind of art space for people to think, then there's no moral questioning. So someone's giving the orders, and I think it's the artist's responsibility never to allow someone to give any order to anyone else without trying to go against it. That's important. And that's what good art is for me, and this is what a lot in my peer group are up to. Not just in Britain, but certainly in Western Europe and all over the place.

AB: You always have the approach of a sculptor much more than of a video artist. One can walk around the screens, there is a whole environment that enables the visitor to physically grasp the work. The visitor's body is involved in a different way than simply in a contemplative situation in front of the screen. Does this mean for you that the video enjoys too restricted an autonomy?

DG: I think, there are a few key words you're using when you say that the general physical context for people to receive a moving image is sitting, and when you said this was a contemplative process. I think for me it is trying to question whether this is such a contemplative process or whether this is an atmosphere that induces supplication rather than questioning. I don't mean to be overly critical of the phenomenon of cinema, I enjoy it a lot, but certain questions need to be asked. And if you can physically encourage questioning, then why not do it? This is one of the things I'm trying to do, just by shifting the physical situation. And if anyone walks into a room and sees a cinema screen that they can walk around, then why wouldn't they do it? So most people do and, again, it's just trying to engage this mechanism of thinking. If people can come into a space, watch films they are familiar with, but be able to just lounge around, move around, feel free to behave outside of the confines of the cinema chair, again the questioning's been initiated. Because by abandoning convention, people will ask why you abandoned that convention, just as, I suppose, a trick to start things off for people. And when you're saying that there's more of a sculptural thing, yeah, it could be more of a sculptural thing. It could also be a painting thing. It's probably not a video thing. I mean, in my art education and my art experience, I really dislike video art. It's physically a problem for me – I don't like to sit and look at a box which is beaming light straight into my eye. I find it difficult to sit and ask questions. I also don't like theatricality, which appears to be implicit for everyone who's using video – I mean it's not necessary. I like the idea that as a visitor to an art space, you know this is the equipment, you know that it needs electricity to power the projector and the player, so there's no need to try and hide it. If anyone comes into an installation by an artist and has a problem with the fact that there's a cable on the floor, that's their problem – it's not the artist's problem. So there's no reason to hide anything. Not as far as I'm concerned, because I'm not that interested, in the end I'm not even that interested in the image that I'm presenting – I'm only interested in the artist's role as a kick-starter for questions.

AB: I'll ask you the last question. How do you picture the near future, the end of this century, of this millennium?

DG: I think too much and I worry a lot, so I'm hoping that I won't be conscious of the end of the millennium. You know, there are certain unimportant calendar dates which I think provide a distraction from questions that need to be asked, the millennium being one of them. The idea that the human race was moving towards a change in the next millennium and that date was of some significance is bullshit, you know. From December whatever to January 15th, a couple of weeks in between millenniums, and it's not going to mean anything unless certain questions are asked and answers are given and arguments started and continued. Who's interested in the definition of the 20th or the 21st century? Not me, it's a statement which doesn't even provide the impetus for a discussion. You know, I don't pay any attention to these things – Christmas, New Year don't mean anything to me. And if you wake up in the morning and you're healthy, then that's the best day of the year.

(Montpellier, March 1996)