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Pierre Bismuth is a very unusual artist. In 2002, in his biography for the catalogue of Manifesta 4, in Frankfurt he defined himself as “an artist considered a good cook by his friends”. His work calls attention to the construction of what we take for granted, aspects related to perception and the ways we produce and consume culture. Pierre Bismuth is also one of the few artists whose work doesn’t have close ties with film, so much as it moves elegantly between the two areas, between contemporary art and film. He was also even awarded an Oscar for the script, written with Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman, for the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
At the moment he is presenting, his first film as a director, Where is Rocky II?, in different situations and contexts, such as the Team Gallery in New York, the gallery Bugada & Cargnel in Paris, Jan Mot in Brussels as well as this years edition of the festival Loop 2015 in Barcelona. We’ve talked about this film with him, about his comings and goings between different contexts, interests and situations as well as his stance as an artist. As an artist who often endeavours to seek systems that maintain a certain distance in relation to his speciality, that is contemporary art.
These days you are presenting your most recent film Where is Rocky II? that is about the search for the work Rocky II, a fake rock that Ed Ruscha hid in the Mojave Desert. How did your interest in this work by Ruscha start and also what made you take it as the core of your film?
It is not only my most recent film but it is actually my first feature film. I discovered the existence of this piece some 10 years ago via a beautiful BBC documentary from 1979. I didn’t think of doing anything with it until I realised that absolutely no one – not even Ed Ruscha’s experts – knew about this work. And the reason for this is most certainly because Ed Ruscha himself never intended to officialise the existence of the piece. So even if a very famous broadcast TV program was showing Ed Ruscha working on this very unusual object in his studio, this was not enough to raise any attention from the art world. This gives you an idea of how many artworks and artists might stay under the radar even with the help of a very good media coverage. So anyway the question that came immediately to my mind was, why is Ed Ruscha so private about this piece ? Why on the one hand to accept to show something publicly on TV and at the same time do everything possible to hide it ? And how come anybody being into Ed Ruscha’s work had never been interested in researching about Rocky 2? The mystery of this piece is not so much about the fact it is a fake rock hidden in the desert but much more about the fact it is an art work hidden from the art world.
I think Ed Ruscha collaborated in your film. We are not going to explain here if you ultimately found the work or not, but did Ruscha give you any clues about the location of the work? What did he think about your idea of searching for Rocky II?
Ruscha makes an appearance as I filmed him during the press conference of his London survey show at the Hayward Gallery in 2009. I pretended to be a journalist and confronted him with the question about Rocky 2. He very elegantly confirmed its existence, explained how it was done, but refused to give any information about its location. We couldn’t dream of any better collaboration from Ruscha than his refusal to talk. I was actually really worried he would say more, it could have ruined the project.
How important for the film is the way the research ends? What did you find out?
The way it ends is very important but the search goes beyond the rock itself. It is much more about how its existence is producing assumptions and how assumptions are somehow always fictional. We of course also found things we where not looking for, like for example this guy who, I realised only later on, had inspired the Coen Brothers to create the character of “The Dude”. So somehow looking for Rocky 2 we found “The Big Lebowski” and it fit right in line since my project was to show how the existence of this strange piece generates situations that produce eventually a film.
This is not the first time your work relates or dialogues with other works or artists, for example Bruce Nauman, Guy Debord or Ruscha, as we mentioned before. What do these artists have that make you do works that dialogue with them?
Most of the time I have a kind of childish, slightly irreverent attitude towards the work of historical artists I like. I try to short-circuit their work, to challenge them and road test them. It is just a way to make them less sacry so one can indeed have a dialogue with them.
Collaboration is another methodology that repeats in your work: collaboration with a detective (in Where is Rocky II?), with a typist (in The Party, 1997), I think in all the cases they come from fields far removed from art, cinema and culture but you ask them to relate to works of art or films. Do you want to destabilize pre-established codes of perception?
I am not sure “collaboration” is the right word here. The work I am doing with the detective and the screenwriters in Where is rocky 2?, the typist in The party and Postscript, or the psychoanalyst and the lawyer in my last Kunsthalle Wien solo show is very different from some collaborations I do with other artists friends. I think the idea here is to study how perception varies according to different fields of expertise. As far as I remember I have always been fascinated by the idea that we live in parallel worlds that are circumscribed by our specific domains of specialisations or interests. In other words that one sees things only because these things makes sense in one’s specific system of knowledge.
Your practice is a clear case of blurring the boundaries between art and the film industry. And you are pioneering in that (later, with more or less success and more or less satisfactory experiences, came Steve McQueen, Cindy Sherman and Shirin Neshat, amongst others). You won an Academy Award, and not just anybody can say that. What are the adjustments you have to make when working in one sphere or the other? What does your artistic practice bring to your work in the film industry and what does your film making practice bring to your experience as an artist?
Mind you Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind is from 2004 while Kathrin Bigelow moved to feature films already in 1982, Julian Schnabel’s first feature Basquiat is from 1996 and Cindy Sherman’s film Office Killer is from 1997. If my position is in anything singular it is only in receiving an Academy award while I am still 100% involved with contemporary art. To be totally honest it is too early for me to speak about “adjustments” as I do not have enough experience in the film business. But I am very aware that doing a film like Where is rocky 2? with that much freedom is quite exceptional and won’t probably happen so often. Thanks to Gregoire Gensollen who decided to produce the film and leave me quasi total freedom.
How has the film been financed and how will it be distributed?
The film has been financed through a French-German-Belgian-Italian coproduction bringing a mix of institutional funding, private investors, ZDF/Arte co-production and Belgian tax shelter, as well as a crowd-funding campaign led by the French production. The film is intended to be distributed in theaters worldwide after a festival premiere in 2016. After its theatrical run, it will then be released in all the traditional distribution platforms in Home Video, VOD and Television, knowing ZDF and Arte will air the film on Free Television in Germany and France respectively as they are our partners on the movie. So for the moment I didn’t really have the time to work on any art institution presentation, even thought I keep the idea of a special museum cut of the film. But this will need to be financed independently anyway.
Frequently your art projects and films deal with an investigation or point at something. What drives you to start an art project or film project?
There are two things that make me start a project. The first one is the delusional belief that it is not going to take me more than 5 min to make a work. The second one is to find people to support a project. And there is actually a third situation when people come to me and ask me to develop on a specific idea or context.
You are quite interested in issues of perception and how we produce and consume culture, and also in creating expectations. Where is Rocky II? appeared first as a trailer, then as a teaser and finally the film. Do you like playing with expectations?
Yes that’s funny because usually the trailer and the teaser are only done after a film is completed. The only reason I started with the trailer and the teaser is because it wasn’t clear I would actually do the feature. And the trailer and the teaser were done as art works, somehow not so far from other art works based on the same principle like The Diamond Lane by Barbara Bloom in 1981, or Trailer for the remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula by Francesco Vezzoli in 2005. But since the feature is now being done, I am actually looking forward to see what the distributor of the film will produce as a real trailer, probably something very different from my art works versions. But I wouldn’t say it plays on expectation, rather on potentiality. The difference is that expectation is calling for a resolution, a closure, while potentiality is just openness without an end.
Is Rocky II a documentary, a feature film, an art project using structures of the film industry? Or, in the end, is this not important?
In reference and in opposition to the fake documentaries I call it a “fake fiction” because I use real situations and real characters to construct a narrative that tries, as much as possible, to look like a written fiction. In its principle you could say it is not so different from a reality show, but it goes exactly in the opposite direction in the sense that reality shows are very orchestrated but pretend to be totally spontaneous and most always adopt the “documentary look” with hidden cameras or hand held shaky camera. You could argue as well that writing fiction with bits of reality is nothing else than what writers do anyway, and that’s true; many writers say they do not invent anything but just recycle stuff they have experienced or heard. But what was really nice on Where is Rocky 2? was to actually write with live recorded material. So with my assistant Nicolas Jolly, who became my “creative consultant” on this project, we were going back to our desk after each day of shoot and continued to write the script according to what just happened that day. It is not an easy process because of the inertia of the film crew that requires usually to feed it with instructions as much in advance as possible, but it is on the other hand the most exciting exercise if you are capable of thinking fast and adapting to contingencies in real time.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)