Ben Medina '19 interviewed Keren Cytter, an Israeli visual artist and writer known for her textually based video art. Below is the transcript of this interview.
Ben—I was wondering about your early life and your upbringing in Tel Aviv, both your childhood and how you became invested in making art?
Keren—I remember—I wasn’t really interested in art, but I wasn’t so popular in school so I had a psychologist, and she checked my IQ, and said I could be good in art, so she gave me a cartoon book and said “just learn to make one cartoon, and that will make you popular.” And that’s what I did. I did Fred Flintstone, it was the easiest, and it did make me popular. My classmates asked, “who made this Flintstone?” and I said “me”, and they said “could you make it in my notebook?” And so that’s how I started. And then I caused problems all the time, growing up in Ariel, not Tel Aviv, so they sent me to a second town to study paintings when I was in high school. And that was it. And then I left the army in the middle, because everyone in Israel has to be in the army, but I got bored so I left. My parents were quite angry with me, and asked what I would do now, and I said I was thinking of studying art in New York. And my father said “we don’t have money for New York, so you should start here.” So I studied at a private art school in Tel Aviv. And they got me books on Salvador Dali. I loved Salvador Dali—he’s still my favorite.
Ben—And how did you get started working with film?
Keren—That was many years later. I moved to Tel Aviv, I was studying art, I finished, and then I started to write art criticism, for the newspaper. Because I was writing all the time.
Ben— Criticism of artists and shows—
Keren—Yeah. And I knew nothing about art, but nobody knew, because no one knows anything about art. It was a daily newspaper. So I did that. And my father really likes gadgets, so he bought a video camera, and then I just thought it would be interesting to write a script—then in video there was only Douglas Gordon, so I thought that whatever I do would be fine. So then I did the “Friends” series, on video, in Tel Aviv. You can see it on Vimeo. I shot my friends in my script. And my friends were editing for me, and that’s how I started. Writing scripts for my friends about their lives, because I had no ideas.
Ben—Who were some of the early influences? One of the things that’s so exciting to me about your video art is that it’s shown at the Museum of Contemporary art and galleries, but at the same time there are a lot of influences from, if not super popular cinema, then at least recognizable genres. Like I could show it to someone who doesn’t usually look at art, and they could still watch it and understand it and get excited about it.
Keren—I don’t know. I didn’t watch much. But I think the language is from cinema, so I think it just—I think I felt very free, because I was young and careless. So I copied things ignorantly without knowing whom I’m copying or what. Like jokes and stuff. And the people I like—who are they? Well, my favorites today are Tarantino, Lars Von Trier, Paul Thomas Anderson, or at least people I appreciate.
Ben—That’s what I mean, someone who maybe wouldn’t go to the Museum of Contemporary Art but knows Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson, I can show them one of your movies and they’ll get the jokes and stuff.
Keren—I don’t care if it’s art or not, I just want to do what I want, because I think art has been a bit lame, lately. So, yeah, so I know the language of cinema and I try to break it. But still I need to like it, so I won’t do really ridiculous things.
Ben—Actually, just more reasons why I like your work, a lot of quote-unquote video art feels like it only has one idea, like it only has one thing it’s trying to communicate. Your art’s very rich.
Keren—Yeah, I try to access many things. And with video in general, the way my father is doing video, I think cinema is influenced by theater because you have to tell a story. It illustrates behavior. But now when I see video, I think that the video itself is a character, and it shouldn’t be illustrative that way cinema itself is, usually. So that’s what I’m trying to do now. My latest movie, “Object”, just got stuck in my head and I had to do it.
Ben—I’d love to talk about “Object” in a second, but is the idea that video is something that doesn’t have to be illustrative because it didn’t come from theater?
Keren—No, it came from theater, but it’s slowly getting its own form. I think the future of this thing won’t be illustrative.
Ben—I’d like to focus in for a second on “Der Spiegel”, which I saw for the first time today, and I’m so curious about how it was made because the camerawork is incredible—I was wondering if you could talk about how you made “Der Spiegel”, and the process of coordinating this dancelike movement.
Keren—That was actually easier than I thought it would be. I knew it was going to be one shot, and then the shape of eight was easy also. I think in the planning there should be an easy pattern, even subconsciously, and I knew I needed professional actors, because they had to memorize the whole thing, and I also knew I needed the outside, so people wouldn’t say “Oh, the whole thing’s inside”. I also wanted repetition so people would be familiar, because repetition creates narrative. So I did that. Also there was another idea behind it that every time a character’s not in the frame they were supposed to hold the camera. But the actors were afraid to hold it, so they just stood behind me.
Ben—So it is just one shot? No cuts?
Keren— All except for the end.
Ben—Could you talk more about the repetition of putting the camera outside the window and shooting outside?
Keren—Well, it was all in the script. And then also the guy had to run. And he was actually completely naked underneath. I wanted to include the house completely, and also I did lots of movies in my apartment and it started to feel confined, so I wanted to shoot outside.
Ben— What is your writing process?
Keren—Oh it’s awful. Right now I’m writing a book. It’s a life coaching book and a dictionary. I’m writing it from the middle, writing about each subject, as I want to.
Ben—So you’re writing it alphabetically?
Keren—Yes. Like If I feel moody I write D—Despair. The only thing is that every letter should talk about one friend.
Ben—So you make movies and plays and books and drawings. Has this always been organic to you?
Keren—Writing I started when I was very young, always writing through something. And lately things have been coming more and more together. I think they’re starting to merge more. But when I think about a script I don’t think about text, but images.
Ben—What is “Four Seasons”? It really engages with genre and film history a lot.
Keren—I had a British friend named Andrew, a dancer, and I built it around stuff he likes because I was making the piece for a British show. So I know he likes Jack Smith, the flamboyant guy, so I got some Jack Smith and copied the music from “Flaming Creatures” for this thing. I was very cynical about it. Like, “Okay, they like this kind of dandy, campy stuff, with skulls and diamonds”. The quality of the recording was really bad, so I needed it to come from a record and not a cd. So I knew there would be a record playing. And then it was Christmas, and I don’t have many friends during Christmas, so I wanted to burn a Christmas tree. That was always what I wanted. So I knew I needed fire, and I know British people like spectacles, so then I thought snow would be nice, and then I needed to find an excuse for the snow. So I thought of Jorge Luis Borges, “The Immortals”, a story about a guy who heard there’s an immortal tribe in the desert. He finds structures of buildings with no roofs. The ceiling is not in the frame, so the snow’s coming in. And I did a version of the text from “The Immortals” for the voiceover, to contextualize the snow. And then also I can only write a script when there are enough rules. So I wanted three characters, but only two are seen. So my references there were Little Red Riding Hood and “The Tenant”, by Roman Polanski. I wanted someone to get into a situation, and then transform. And then I added more and more fog every time it got boring. Fireworks, big cakes, stuff like that. And then, to solve the problems of not telling a normal narrative, I had this cheap trick of this stream of consciousness voiceover, because I don’t like watching people talk.
Ben—That reminds me of what you said earlier, about video being a character in itself, how you’re not so much following an individual character, as you’re engaging with the whole thing, from the actors to the fog to the trees.
Keren— Yeah. I don’t like the limitations of telling a narrative.
Ben—How do you think about your movies? Which parts of the movies you make are exciting to you? How are you invested?
Keren—Very childishly. Basically something I think that would be very cool. With “Object” I wanted to turn my backyard into a swimming pool, to contain many things but to still have grace. I try to be excited, which means I always need to change something.
Ben—How do you shoot?
Keren—No boom. Always dubbing. I can control everything, shoot quickly and cheaply, with two lights.
Ben—Could you talk about your use of sound?
Keren—In “Object” I just tried to reconstruct everything exactly. Every time it’s different. I like to control everything. I think video is 50% sound and 50% image. I noticed that Tarantino also writes sound notes down in his scripts.
Ben—In “Object” you have all these very long, sustained takes, but then within the frame you have all these levels of action. Was that part of the conception?
Keren—Well, I went to Moscow for a Biennial. I fell on this image of Russian people flooding their apartment, flooding it and turning it into a swimming pool. And I have this really cool backyard. And I couldn’t stop thinking about this idea. I remember, I was in a party, suffering from an inferiority complex, and I went home and wrote this thing. I knew it would all be still shots, all steady shots, no move in, no zoom, no panning, and I realized it would be performative because people would react to the static frame. Then I thought it would be three acts, every act three shots, nine scenes, and at the end of every third shot one character dies and is alive again. And that night I had the whole synopsis. And the three guys, I thought they would abuse the woman, and each would represent a country.
Ben—I actually meant to ask about that—you fill your movies with everything, and one of the things is this political and geographical and sexual and identity based stuff. But when I watch your movies, I think about this Nabokov quip where he says, “satire is a lesson, and parody is a game.” And in that sense that your movies feel like a game being played with all of these ideas and images, as opposed to a more didactic lesson or statement.
Keren—Yeah, of course. I cannot give a lecture. I really do not know much. And I think people shouldn’t. It’s pretentious to think you know something. But I get so angry, so I do something. I was thinking about power games, about America and Russia and China, but it was interesting to just say the names.
Ben—It feels very emotional and interesting without necessarily being a lesson. And then that first shot, with the woman and the penis—it’s very striking and emotionally visceral as well as intellectually stimulating. The sense of danger and vulnerability.
Keren—I always try to not make people feel bad because I hate those kinds of movies, but I thought that in every shot there would be one game with the objects, and then in every shot there would be some kind of intensity.
Ben—A little bit of Lars Von Trier.
Keren—(laughs) Yeah, in Lars Von Trier she’d probably start giving him a blowjob. I found all the people on Craigslist because I don’t have Russian-speaking friends. One of the people was the body double in Oceans. He was the penis. I was hoping he would find me more friends, but he just found his embarrassed friend. And then the girl was Israeli, from Craigslist. And another Russian, he was gay and came with his boyfriend. We had lots of problems with this movie. One time the swimming pool exploded. What was good with sound is that I didn’t have to worry about dialogue that much. I built long pauses into the script so it would look Russian, very unnatural.
Ben—There’s tension, but it’s also very funny. In like a cockeyed way.
Keren—Yeah, like when he’s smashing the head of the guy in the window. I really can’t do stuff without humor.
Ben—There are so many dicks in this movie.
Keren—I know, all the time. I kept shouting “I don’t see the penis, where is the penis, show me the penis!” One time, during the porn movie, when he’s lying down, the guy was very reserved. It was all the time to show his penis. I remember we shot it, and he had to spread his legs, so I had my assistant, an Israeli girl, had to tell him to show the penis. I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t sure he’d come back for the second day of shooting.
Ben—Was the idea of having these flaccid penises everywhere part of the whole thing of global powers and power plays?
Keren—I wanted everything to be over the top and equally exposed.
Ben—I love the moment when you have the two people with the gun in the background, but then she pushes the chair away and makes eye contact with the camera and starts dancing.
Keren— I saw the trailer for Dogtooth, this Greek movie, from the same guy who did The Lobster, about a guy with two daughters, who is isolating them. They have their own culture. And I saw them dancing, and the dancing was so isolated, so I wanted that in the movie. She was a very sexy girl, but we compromised a bit on what the dance could’ve been.
Ben—What are you working on now?
Keren—Object was for a show, and now I’m writing the book, and the guy designing it designed the poster for the lobster. And I’m also organizing these big Zurich festivals, with screenings. It’s such an easy thing to organize, much harder to make art. And then, in the summer, my play at the MCA, I’m adapting for Isabelle Huppert. I found her, and now I have the budget, so I need to approach her. And then I want to write a script without limitations, just to see the next thing.
Ben—Are there any artists or filmmakers or authors you’re excited about now?
Keren—She’s dead, but I really, really like her. Clarice Lispector, a Brazilian author. She’s very famous.
Ben—Thank you so much!