Isaac Julien / Interview Olivia Anani

« When I was making films as an art student nothing would have been more boring to me than to have these films shown in a gallery or museum. We wanted to see our films shown in cinemas, broadcasted on TV, even if they were going to be in the late program. Of course, now the contrary is true.Television sucks, cinema is dead, the museum and the gallery are the few autonomous spaces left. »

– Isaac Julien 

Isaac Julien in SWAG high profiles
Isaac Julien © Thierry Bal

British artist and director Isaac Julien, CBE RA was born in London in 1960. A tireless chronicler of our times, his generous oeuvre sheds light on contemporary life’s most pressing issues in the most intimate of ways. From counter-cultures to the trans-local, the award-winning filmmaker meets us to discuss his approach to artistic practice.

Could you please tell us about your early years? In a Guardian interview from 2013, you mention meeting Astrid Proll as a teenager, and being influenced by punk culture at the time. I speak about my early years at length in the 2013 book Riot, published for the exhibition of my project Ten Thousand Waves at MoMA. In the first chapter, I explain how my parents’ apartment in the Coventry Cross Estate burning down, turned out to be one of the determining events in my life. After the fire, we moved to a different home right around the corner from an arts center called Kingsley Hall. The Hall and the artists studios across the street where truly eye-opening for me. I started meeting all kinds of people, going to their studios, and learning from scratch how to take and print photographs, how to make films and many other skills that would prove useful in my career. It was during that time that I met Jenny Fortune, Noreen MacDowell, Susan Shearer and eventually German far-left fugitive Astrid Proll, who went by an alias. Many of them were part of middle-class, leftist militant groups. These were also the times of punk and all kinds of counter cultures in London.

Kingsley Hall itself was known for having hosted Mahatma Gandhi in the thirties. It was a very dynamic environment, and by the time I turned 20,
I already knew how of film worked, how to be on a production set, how to edit a work… I then decided to go to art school. I chose Central Saint Martins, a sort of Oxbridge equivalent for the arts and was lucky to be accepted. There I met people like Peter Doig or film editor Adam Finch, who’s known me since I was 19 years old…

What did your family think about you spending time with this artsy crowd, and your decision to go to art school? I knew very early on that I didn’t want to work in a traditional environment, such as an office. My parents weren’t against it and my mother was very supportive.

I find very interesting the idea of an art and counterculture atmosphere like the one you grew up around. I feel like today young art students wish nothing more than to conform, long for nothing more than to be in the institution, to sign with established galleries. What you describe is totally different. Absolutely. When I was making films as an art student nothing would have been more boring to me than to have these films shown in a gallery or museum. We wanted to see our films shown in cinemas, broadcasted on TV, even if they were going to be in the late program. Of course, now the contrary is true. Television sucks, cinema is dead, the museum and the gallery are the few autonomous spaces left. I remember when my early films came out, like Territories and Young Soul Rebels, a friend of mine and art critic, called Adrian Searle, wrote a review in an art magazine. He called me to say “I’m sure you haven’t read it”. And indeed, I was not reading those magazines, except maybe Artforum once in a while.
We were not completely withdrawn from the art world, we would have a screening in the morning and then go to openings in the evening, provided there was something particularly interesting to see, say Andy Warhol.
But we were truly interested in challenging institutions, interested in collectives and our vision was very much rooted in that.

Do you feel like there is still space for that same ideal of transgression in your work today? I do. When you look at my work I am still interested in contemporary and historical figures with a strong engagement with the world and specific issues such as migration, displacement, etc. My latest films are about Lina Bo Bardi, the incredible woman architect from Brazil born in Italy, and about Frederick Douglass, a former slave and abolitionist.

… And most photographed man in the 19th century. Indeed.

The language you formed in film is quite specific: it is very rich, fusing the visuals, sound, choreography, acting. How did this language come about? It truly is the result of working with a team of very highly skilled professionals in these different disciplines. Sometimes when I see works of time-based media,
I feel they are very strong conceptually, but often not so rigorous on the technical side. So it was important for me to bring all these different elements at a very high level.
Same goes for the casting: Ray Fearon, the actor who plays Frederick Douglass in Lessons of the Hour, I choose because of his interest in Shakespeare, which mirrored Frederick Douglass’ own. And he was interested in playing this part for the same reason he is a Royal Shakespeare Company actor.

Now regarding dance: I was always very interested in choreography, although it is something that exists within its own realm. To be honest, I am actually going to see Alvin Ailey performing at the theater tonight! But I think it really has to do with an interest in architecture and architectural presence, a choreography of the body in space within a gallery context, which is something I try to achieve with multi-screen installations. They are demanding, and not inexpensive to install, but
I think they allow me to push innovation to some extent, and in that sense I think I’ve had many imitators.

You surely do… 

Let us talk about your personal archive, how and when did you decide to set up your achive in a formal way, and after reintroducing audiences to a work such as Looking For Langston, what is your next project in regards to this archive?  I was always obsessed with the archive. But part of setting up my own came from working on Looking for Langston, and searching for film archives of black people from the same period. Unfortunately there wasn’t much filmed at the time; hence, I had to re-construct the images that I wanted to see, and that became the basis for making “Looking for Langston”. Over the years, the archival impulse became stronger, and working on the project about Derek Jarman with Tilda Swinton really cristallized that. Derek had an amazing archive, but the way the archive was conserved was quite worrying within certain institutions.

I realized you really need to organize an archive formally for it to be at at the centre of my practice. I also realized the archive can be an important place for inspiration. Working on the conservation of Looking for Langston brought new interest in the work, and lead to it being acquired by the Tate and shown in various Foundations. I am now revisiting works from the early eighties, especially one from 1982-1983, called « Who Killed Colin Roach? ». It is about the death of a young Black man at a police station in East London, in 1982. That’s a work I made as a student, and I found in my archive black and white film stills from the demonstrations that ensued. The piece was shown at Metro Pictures earlier this year, and will be presented at Frieze. So I see the archive as a living archive, and a place where you can re-articulate works. There’s been a lot of interest in my early works. We showed Young Soul Rebels recently at the National Film Theatre. Peter Doig came and brought all his family, his daughters, and everyone was very much excited about the work. We realized that if you want to understand Brexit, there it is already, in Young Soul Rebels in 1991. This was a time when you could still make films that mattered about the events of 1977. You can already see a sentiment in sections of the White population, fixed ideas about national identity, and people who were made to feel like they don’t belong, which of course, we repudiate.

You are a filmmaker, but also a film enthusiast. From references to Chinese cinema in Ten Thousand Waves and beyond, can you tell us about your passion for cinema as a medium, and how your interest in historical, archival, regional, and experimental film was built over the years?  The late eighties saw a clear shift in terms of avant-garde cinema moving away from the West, towards the East. Taiwanese, Mainland and Hong Kong cinema with Edward Yang, Wong Kar-wai, we saw a whole movement beginning in Asian cinema. My relationship to those movements started quite early, and I followed Wong Kar-wai very closely. From that moment on, I remained interested in Chinese cinema and Chinese contemporary art, with artists like Yang Fudong in the early 2000s. 
I maintained a strong interest, and when the Morecombe Bay tragedy occured in 2004, I felt like it was important to make a work to respond to that tragedy. There is a strong tradition of migration in Chinese culture, dating back thousands of years.

In that sense the way questions of migration are addressed in Europe is incredibly retrograde. One takes a long view in a Chinese cultural sense looking at the South as opposed to the West and connecting these different modernisms which were also circulating.

You’re talking about these global issues from the point of view of the “Souths”, but your point of vue is also that of the human scale, of the intimate and this is something that is very striking in your films.
People talk about globalization, but I am more interested in trying to be “trans-local“. London is a very cosmopolitan city, with so many different cultures. One aspect of it is linked to the Empire, obviously, but also because it is a metropolis. Even if one receives important accolades, I guess it is good to be recognized, but I still wonder why the E for “Empire“ in CBE still exists when it could be changed for “excellence“. But with the ongoing Brexit debate I guess we get an answer.

                                                                                  In SWAG high profiles issue 1
                                                                                  Olivia Anani
                                                                                  September 2019