Interview: with Isaac Julien

Part documentary and part fiction, Isaac Julien’s PLAYTIME, 2013, is set across Reykjavik, Dubai and London – three cities, defined by their role in relation to capital – and follows six main protagonists – the artist, hedge fund manager, auctioneer, housekeeper, art dealer and reporter and their entanglement with the global financial crisis. The exhibition - which comprises of the large film installation, PLAYTIME, a two-monitor flat-screen installation, KAPITAL, and six photographic works - was shown at Metro Pictures gallery in New York in late 2013. KAPITAL presents Julien and David Harvey, author of the book “The Enigma of Capital,” in conversation with theorists, critics and curators at the Hayward Gallery in London.  

I caught up with Isaac Julien while he was in Sydney with an exhibition at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery (15 March – 12 April 2014). 

Lucy Rees: You’ve said that PLAYTIME was influenced by the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, but the themes have been in your work all along. How did PLAYTIME begin?

Isaac Julien: During the making of Ten thousand waves, 2010, I began to want to make a film called PLAYTIME. I was really struck by the 2008 crash. After I saw Jacque Tati’s film Playtime(1967), a hilarious comedy of manners, I wanted to make a piece of work that was an ironic reflection; something that might be quite sardonic in terms of its visual presentation. I wanted to make a work that was looking into the mirror, pointing the camera at myself and at the art world in which I exist.

LR: Tell me about your personal relationship to the film’s three stories.

IJ: I think it’s important to say that a lot of my works begin through a personal relation. PLAYTIME starts its story with the Icelandic photographer Thorsten Henn, who lost his modernist dream home during the crash in 2008 as the bank withdrew its funds and the country falls into financial ruin. It’s about the experience of trauma he underwent. The modern ruin couldn’t be finished – it needed a memorialisation. Memorialisation has been a theme in my work.

Dubai came about through my housekeeper. She was from Dubai and came to work for me in London. She wanted to escape her Dubai employers. What’s interesting about her story is the way that capital is vulnerable and unstable – insecure. It makes people disposable; people need to be able to move from space to space, which is important for capital to work. I wanted to juxtapose that with her story.

LR: Has your own view of the art world changed during the research and making of PLAYTIME?

IJ: I don’t think I participate in the art world uncritically. I came from film via art school at Central Saint Martins, London, and then decided to make video works. The thing about video art is that the very medium is quite excluded from the secondary market, which I think allows for further reflection.

LR: Was a lot of the film completed in post-production?

IJ: Yes, there are a lot of special effects. For example, the computer terminals that appear in the scene when the bankers are looking down are all CGI.

LR: There is an interesting link to the very concept of capital there. David Harvey says that capital cannot be seen but only detected through its effect, something that is in constant motion.

IJ: This is important. And that’s why there is a lot of talking in the film. Visualisation is not enough. It’s shot on super high definition and it’s the first work I have made that is not on actual film; it is just a digital code. There’s definitely a metaphor there. We know the scenes must have taken place for the camera to have recorded them, but they don’t really exist. It is non-material and only gets activated through projections. The technology actually mirrors the enigmatic nature of capital. It’s like in banking: millions of dollars can be made and lost in milliseconds, all through computer programming. These are the invisible forces that are literally controlling our lives.

This interview was first published on Art and Australia's website. 


Isaac Julien has had one-person exhibitions at Centre Pompidou, Paris; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston; Art Institute of Chicago; Milwaukee Art Museum; Bass Museum of Art, Miami; St. Louis Art Museum; Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover; SESC Pompeia, Sao Paulo; and Aspen Art Museum. Julien participated in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, 8th Shanghai Biennale; and 2012’s La Triennale at Palais de Tokyo, Paris. His films have been included in film festivals such as the Cannes Film Festival, Berlin Biennale and Venice Film Festival.