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Interview with Eve Sussman

Eve Sussman

This is an Artfacts.Net interview between Eve Sussman and Marek Claassen. Eve Sussman & The Rufus Corporation has recently become famous with the outstanding video art works "89 seconds at Alcázar" and "The Rape of the Sabine Women":

AfN: While researching into your work and especially into the last work, "The Rape of the Sabine women", I was thinking about Bill Viola, and I considered myself quite smart. But then in other interviews I found on the internet, I noticed that it already had crossed other interviewers' minds... Ten years ago in Frankfurt, I saw a Viola work called "The Greeting" that was based on a painting of Jacopo da Pontormo; it is about Mary telling her cousin Elizabeth that she is expecting a child. Have you been aware of this work when you started?

Sussman: of course, I am acquainted with the work, but I wasn't thinking about it. Bill Viola isn't someone I think about that much, I guess. He is a seminal video artist, critically important to the history of the medium. But I'm not really looking at other video artists for inspiration. My interest is much more cinematic. If you are asking what I look at for inspiration, the answer would be filmmakers and the history of film.

AfN: But you find yourself in both contexts...

Sussman: I am in whatever context you want to put me in. I don't really care how I am categorised. I can make what I make. I started as a sculptor/installation artist. I might make a sculpture next, I might make a video installation, I might make another film. It's not like I have to be in one camp or the other.

AfN: But you don't appreciate the way video artists put themselves in a box and do not really do movies?

Sussman: No, I do appreciate it. Obviously, there are some great video artists. When I was younger I was incredibly inspired by Gary Hill's early work. I love what a lot of video artists do, but it's not what I look at for inspiration that much anymore. Even if I am categorised with them, I actually think I am not that similar to them because my interests are more cinematic, and because I get my inspiration from the history of film.

AfN: Concerning The Rape... , how did it evolve? Have you seen the David?

Sussman: I actually have only seen reproductions of the David. However I've seen the Poussin and the Rubens. Originally, we looked at the paintings and then looked at the myth. What we were really interested in was the myth, and the paintings became something to look at for gesture or for choreographic ideas. I work with the choreographer Claudia de Serpa Soares who is quite well known here. She dances with Sasha Waltz, as well as creating her own work. So I was looking for something that I could work on together again with Claudia, that lent itself to choreographic possibilities as well as the cinematic. I think those interests are not common to video artists. The history of video art comes more of the background of performance art and turning the camera on oneself. I don't turn the camera on myself.

AfN: No you don't. You are the director...

Sussman: Yes.

AfN: The movie tells a Roman story. But it starts in Berlin, in the Pergamon museum, and then it jumps to Greece, to the butcher's market. How come Italy does not appear?

Sussman: There are a lot of reasons. Some of them are perhaps a bit un-p.c., but I decided that I did not want to shoot in what I find to be an overly bourgeois culture. It does not really matter that The Rape... it is a Latin myth. The basic foundation of our story is that of a love triangle. You can put that love triangle anywhere. I decided that it should be in a more rugged place, a slightly less domesticated culture, a more individualistic society, and I wanted that also to be echoed in the landscape. The landscape of Italy is bucolic. If you think for example of that Tuscan landscape... To me, it is also a country where work is not paramount. I lived there for a while. As chaotic as Greece is, there is a lot of drive in the people and the place.

AfN: I was asking that question because the Romans have stolen or imported the Greek culture in a way, so I thought that this might have been a reason...

Sussman: No, I really wanted to go to a place where I thought the landscape and the culture echoed a certain type of ruggedness, a certain type of roughness that I find is not available in the rest of Europe so much. Western Europe is extremely - I would say - domesticated.

AfN: And that's why you like Berlin....

Sussman: Berlin is a little less domesticated, but Greece is certainly less domesticated. And that overly domesticated culture was not helpful to my aesthetics. So in terms of trying to be historically correct or if it has to be in Italy because it's a Roman myth, this has nothing to do with anything.

Marek Claassen (Artfacts.Net), Catherine Mahoney (Producer, Rufus Corporation), Eve Sussman

AfN: When I was watching the movie, I was really wondering about this one scene where you can always see - here and there - this guard of the Pergamon museum. Can you explain the meaning of his constant presence?

Sussman: The 'Old Guard' (Nesbitt Blaisdell) is also a mythic idea, in that you have a soothsayer or seer character that is always there and witnesses the action. We also imagined an 'Old Romulus' and a 'Young Romulus' (Jeff Wood) meeting in the museum. You noticed that he was always there, and that's what you had to see; that he's always there, and that he begins and ends the piece. He is a both witness and a seer; somebody who is delivering the men their fate and knows the story before it happens. You can impose any narrative you want on him, but the main thing that you need to notice is that he makes an appearance in every scene and is clearly watching the action. He's there as a guard, he's there as security police in Tempelhof Airport, he's there as a tourist with a Poloroid in the house. At the end, he is just watching and witnessing the chaos, as if it was inevitable and he knew it all along. Which makes sense with the 'Old Romulus' scenario - he would have seen it all before.

AfN: For a frequent Hollywood movie watcher who is used to happy endings, the end was also quite unusual. Your movie has an open ending...

Sussman: Well, the fate that's delivered upon these men and these women is inevitable: that they are delivered to this chaos, and that utopian idea, that dream of a perfect lifestyle, the perfect house and so on, is all undone. If you think about the desire that this is about, and the myth really is about desire, it becomes a simple tale of "be careful what you wish for".

AfN: It also reminded me of this David-painting. It's the end of the movie.

Sussman: Yes. The significant moment that we were trying to create at the end is the intervention and then the unravelling of the social utopian ideal. Therefore, there was no way our intervention would result in a happy ending and reconciliation. I mean, ultimately our own group of men start to fight each other. In the house the relationships start to fall apart, the love triangle that the men initiated in the butcher's market where they steal the women, they finally deliver upon themselves. They catch their own disease. You see this clearly in the long scene on the couch (with Walter Sipser , Grayson Millwood and Marilisa Chronea ) in which one man plays the perfect interloper trying to distract the attentions of another man's wife as he desperately tries to hold on to her attention.

AfN: Yes, but while preparing for this interview, I was reading the word "boring". I did not find the movie boring, but the word "boring" was used by yourself in one interview I read. You stated that in a movie that is neither a typical video artwork nor a typical Hollywood movie, you have to have these sequences as parts where you prepare for something that is coming.

Sussman: I hope that we are able to make something that is abstract, but that is also not boring. That's the challenge, to make something that's not traditionally narrative but is also able to hold the attention of the viewer.

AfN: But the moment in the movie when they are sitting in this 60s building, was not at all boring for me...

Sussman: It was tedious. You were supposed to feel the boredom of the characters, their tedium; that they landed with this dream that they can't quite handle. But it has suspense still.... I think it has suspense, and I think it's quite interesting. One certainly can caught up in their tedium, if one is a willing viewer...

AfN: But you sit there and wait, then there is somebody in a rowboat, and you don't know what's going on. And everybody is sitting there looking at magazines, and it is very much like life...

Sussman: ...right, which sometimes is boring. So you have to work with that, but that does not mean I want the viewers to be bored. The characters can look bored or act bored, but it does not mean necessarily the viewer is bored. I think the tedium that they're caught in, isn't exactly what you call boredom.

AfN: When we talk about movie-making and being an artist, how would the Hollywood crowd react to that?

Sussman: I don't know. I actually would love to know that. We're hoping to get invited to Cannes. We just applied. I think they take one video art piece in Cannes every year. Last year, it was "Zidane" by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno.

AfN: That's really interesting. I had a panel discussion at the DiVA, the video art fair in New York. Some people who consider themselves video artists are always dealing with the problem "when I make videos, how can I make a living? How can this whole business evolve?". When you say that you are a moviemaker, but aren't you are dealing with this opposition of having one million visitors paying entry or being an artist....

Sussman: The million visitors isn't a reality. I still have to work in the art world.

AfN: And this is why you have these photographs that are collectible...

Sussman: Yes, but the videos are collectible, too. I mean the big-ticket item is the video.
It's an edition of 10 plus two artist proofs, of which I keep one. Right now eight are sold.

AfN: And they are going with the documentation?

Sussman: By that I suppose you are referring to the photographs, which I don't consider documentation, but distinct, discreet artworks, shot by three photographers: Bobby Neel Adams, Benedikt Partenheimer and Ricoh Gerbl. But the answer is no. If you buy the video, you, buy the video. The photographs are separate works.

AfN: Is it a DVD?

Sussman: No, it is not a DVD. We absolutely do not and will not make a DVD. Each collector gets a CPU and a harddrive as well as an HD-cam SR mastertape.

AfN: Is it the same with the former works? 89 seconds...

Sussman: 89 seconds... - I delivered a mastertape, a WINDOWS media 9 version, and I did give a DVD which was a mistake, and I learned from that mistake. I should never have given a DVD. If you want your collectors to play the work in high definition and to lend it to a museum in high def, you'd better give it to them in high def. Obviously, you want to give them the best quality version of the work, and the best quality version of the work is a high definition file, so what they get is a small computer with an HD file, and the computer can play the piece.

AfN: And both works were made for a big screen?

Sussman: Both works are installed based on the venue. So depending on the venue, the specific architecture, we create the screen accordingly. I don't think either piece works well small. I think they should be at least the size we projected in Hamburger Bahnhof (4m x 7m)
I have also shown small works. In addition to the main piece, The Rape… which is an 83 minute film, there are flat-screen works that we have been making, and those pieces go on small screens, 20 inches or so. They work more like moving paintings or what we call "postcards"; they almost feel like postcards. We shot 200 hours of footage, so from the 200 hours, we have these side projects, these videos that go on smaller screens and are also more more accessible to people who might want to own video art. These flat-screen works are part of the Rape of the Sabine project, but they are not, as a whole, in the film. These are different, distinct pieces that we created.

AfN: And about the aesthetics of the prints: who is deciding on this?

Sussman: I work together with our costume designer, Karen Young, our choreographer, Claudia and the actors. So the aesthetics of the art direction comes from me in collaboration with the creative crew and the actors. I also work with three photographers, and occasionally I am shooting (although often I shoot HDV or Super 8), so usually it is one of the three photographers who is shooting or all of them are shooting. Everybody's shooting. We are running two video cameras plus sometimes a film camera, three still cameras, and sound recording... It's like being in a football game or a war zone or a rock concert. But in terms of how the room should look, and what people should be wearing, or where they could be sitting, that's both directed and improvised. Karen and I figure out what people should wear, and we together with the hair and make-up artists are deciding what the actors should look like. In terms of what people are doing in a specific scene the actors improvise a lot, however there is a structure to many of the improvs that Claudia and I have come up with based on rehearsals with the actors.

AfN: And then you have this huge amount of photos....

Sussman: Yes, huge amount, 6000, and maybe we release 20.

AfN: And they are very beautiful.

Sussman: Thank you.

AfN: At the beginning of our conversation, you said that you did not like Italy because it was too domesticated, not rough enough. What about Brooklyn?

Sussman: Brooklyn is less domesticated, it's getting worse though. It is getting more and more domesticated every day. It would be great to do something in Brooklyn. I think the problem is space. 89 seconds... was shot in a garage in Brooklyn, but shooting in terms of landscape in Brooklyn.... We've been talking about the desire to make a very American piece next time, maybe if not in Brooklyn, then at least in America. Cinematographically, I would like to have a sense of space, and you don't find wide-open space in Brooklyn very easily.

AfN: When you look to Manhattan maybe....

Sussman: From the window of my studio I have a view of Manhattan, probably one of the best views of that skyline one could ever wish for. I have shot one piece that uses that view and is specifically about the view in the days following September 11th. It's a 20-minute short film called Solace, featuring a great soprano, Kati Agocs, singing Purcell. In the days after 9/11 everyone was compelled to look at that picture, it suddenly wasn't cliché anymore. The image was no longer co-opted by Woody Allen. But I don't really want to use this quintessential New York skyline without a good reason. It's a common picture. On 9/11 everyone with a camera had a reason.

AfN: You were born in London, and then you lived in New Zealand as well...

Sussman: I grew up in America. My father was a professor who travelled quite a bit. I went to college, to university for a while in New Zealand...

Eve Sussman, Marek Claassen (Artfacts.Net)

AfN: And did this have any kind of influence....?

Sussman: I mean, every place you go influences you. I also went to high school in Istanbul; as a young child, we lived in India... I think all of these things influence your sensibility, for sure, and certainly the idea about going to places outside of America to do work, going to places where one don't necessarily understand everything, where you are in a different culture, where you can't read the alphabet...

AfN: Do you work with galleries?

Sussman: Yes, I work with Roebling Hall in New York. I work closely with that gallery.

AfN: There is this website called "union-gallery"...

Sussman: Union Gallery is in London. My main representative is Roebling Hall in New York.

AfN: And he organises the production of these photos, the edition of the photographs...?

Sussman: No, that's all my decision.

AfN: And what about the Rufus Corporation?

Sussman: Well, at some point, you need to become a company. When you start working with a lot of people, you realise that you can identify your work with your own name or you can identify it with a name that isn't you. And it started to make sense to not identify it only with my own name, especially because I was working with the same core group of people again. The same actors who were in 89 seconds..., most of them are in The Rape... ; same costume designer, same choreographer, same DP (Sergei Franklin)...

AfN: And this will remain the same for the next piece that is based on Malevich's "White on White"?

Sussman: I hope so. Yes. We'll see how things continue but certainly there is a core group of ten people or so that, I think, will keep going. In the same way that you have a dance company or a theatre company... Those companies, they are taking on new people all the time but they also have a core group of people that stay for a while. I mean I might make some solo work in the next year too, but these last two pieces were made by the Rufus Corporation.

AfN: But you also work alone.

Sussman: Yes, I have over the last ten years, and I may make some solo work right now. Like I said, the last four years have been with the same core group of people, although of course we added many to our ranks to create The Rape…

AfN: Where will your next show be?

Sussman: The next big installation of The Rape… will be in London, at Projectspace 176, a new space being opened by Anita Zabludowicz of the Zabludowicz Collection. And then the Smart Museum in Chicago, and there might also be some festivals. We might do a festival in Poland and possibly in Moscow, but I'm really hoping the next show will be Cannes.

AfN: Thank you very much for the interview.

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