Whether she’s navigating the deserts of Kazakhstan or running her own badass art corporation, Eve Sussman doesn’t play by the rules. I was lucky enough to sit down with her just before the Texas debut of her 2007 film, Rape of the Sabine Women. Brought to Austin by the brilliant minds at Arthouse in collaboration with the collectors Julie and John Thornton and screened in the lush environs of the historic Paramount Theatre, this collaborative event between institutions and individuals is the kind of occurrence that can and should happen regularly here, but is sadly a rare treat. Read on to learn more about Sussman’s thoughts on the blurring of artistic mediums, getting projects made in tough economic times, and what most writers miss about her work.
Kate Watson (KW): Can you start by telling me a little bit about the identity of the Rufus Corporation, the name you’ve been working under since you began working collaboratively?
Eve Sussman (ES): It’s really an ad-hoc group of people: since 2003, when I started making these collaborative pieces, there has been a core group of between five and ten people that I have worked with consistently. Sometimes it’s three people traveling on the train across Kazakhstan and sometimes it’s 50 people going to Greece from Berlin and New York, getting together with another 50 people in Athens to make Rape of the Sabine Women.
KW: How is it to show a project like Rape of the Sabine Women in a traditional movie theater like the Paramount? You’ve shown it in museum settings and more traditional theaters, and it certainly speaks to the blurring of genres you often play with in your work.
ES: People go into the movie theater with different expectations than a gallery. Sometimes you’re fighting those expectations—the desire for narrative, for a certain kind of flow. They don’t expect abstraction and they don’t expect to work so hard. In a gallery or museum, people are willing to give in a little more and are often willing to work harder, in addition to the fact that there’s not as much pressure—you can walk out at any time and it doesn’t make a statement. In a movie theater, it’s rarely done. In a theater the audience is more rapt, but if you walk out that definitely is a statement.
Sometimes I debate the captive audience thing. I don’t think it’s a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just a difference. For me the experience of a show depends more on the specific qualities of the place—it might be a great movie theater or a terrible one, a beautiful gallery or a crappy installation or a place with great picture quality and really bad sound. It becomes less about comparing the “movie theater” vs. the “gallery” than comparing the specific qualities of each experience. That said, my work is mainly shown in the art world, more in galleries than theaters. So something like this screening in Austin is a bit of a rare experience for me. Maybe a bit more of a challenge. We’ll see.
KW: One thing that stands out at me is the scale you’re working on, specifically the number of people you’re working with. I’m also interested in the sponsorships that you have and all of the financial support. All of these components all combined…it’s quite overwhelming to imagine organizing a project on that scale.
ES: Support builds over time—it doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes I think it looks more impressive on paper than it really is. Somebody doesn’t have to do all that much for us to put their logo on the website: they give us a few free rolls of film or a discount on something. They’re on my website as “sponsors,” but those relationships develop, and it doesn’t mean that somebody is footing all of our bills and that nothing requires money. It just means that I’ve gotten to a point where I know how to negotiate with people and they’re willing to make things doable and affordable. I do sell art now and no longer think it’s right for me to go to a film lab and ask them to do things for free. But I’ve developed relationships over ten years that mean I can ask specific people to negotiate on different terms than they would in the commercial film world. I have no problem asking people [read corporate types] to “make an exception.”
KW: Do you feel like it’s changed a lot in this economic environment?
ES: Sure, of course it has. Lately, we haven’t been pursuing as much sponsorship. I was shooting again in Central Asia this past March and we got sponsorship from Kodak. They gave us some film; I bought some film. They all cut us deals, but it’s much harder to ask companies to give 100%. It’s much harder now—I used to have a lot more leeway because I was selling a lot more work. In the last year and a half, that’s changed substantially.
But you know, I came from a background of 22 years of not selling anything. And it was only recently that that changed. There were five really flush years, and now the last year has been difficult. And if it goes back to the way it was before, I’d figure out how to make a living. So I’m not that worried, but White on White is a much more scaled down project. I didn’t take 40 people to Central Asia —the biggest crew was in March. We were ten people. And one of those people was my husband, and I didn’t pay him!
KW: Tell me more about your most recent project, White on White.
ES: It was much like everything I do: quite spur of the moment and spontaneous. After we finished shooting Rape of the Sabine Women, one of our actors, Jeff Wood, in character, kept talking about how he wanted go to space, since it was such a mid-1960s thing to do. His character was obsessed with space and the moon landing.
Around that time, I had a friend that kept saying, “what’s your next painting? There’s gotta be a third painting!” He insisted that I was working on a trilogy and I’d have to do a third film based on a painting. I very sarcastically responded by saying that I would make a piece about White on White by Kazimir Malevich. And then we started thinking about it: the painting in relation to Jeff’s desire to go to space. We thought how perfectly those ideas fit together. I started thinking specifically about the nature of that particular desire. I’m not really interested in going to space, but I’m interested in the desire to go there.
Long story short, we ended up in Kazakhstan. We were trying to get to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, where the Russian launch site is. It’s like the Cape Canaveral of the Russian space program. It’s in the middle of the Kazakh desert and we just thought, “let’s just go!” But you can’t “just go”—it’s a military base, and if you go, you get arrested!
We got hauled down to the police station and our passports were taken; we were questioned for five hours before they kicked us out. It was after that that we started noticing the really interesting stuff going on in the post-Soviet world, particularly the conflation of communism and capitalism, the rise of the new rich and the remnants of the gigantic Soviet machine. We saw firsthand how these two supposedly opposing ideologies had become one.
People in America now are talking about the “death of Capitalism” and are trying to hold onto this 1950s opposition between “us” and “them,” but you go to these burgeoning new capitalist countries and you realize the opposition never really existed, at least not in the way were taught. They’ve always been married together, and the thing that’s married them is this whole other kind of nationalistic beast. But in Central Asia it’s a special conflation of these two opposing regimes into a particular type of nationalistic monster that’s so phenomenal. It really is state capitalism, in which giant corporations run the state in the name of cultural and national identity. And that’s no different than what’s going on in most places.
KW: This project in particular seems to refer back the surveillance theme that was central to your earlier work. Can you tell us a little bit about your work pre–89 Seconds at Alcazar?
ES: Oh, yes, that work is really important to me. I really want to bring some of those ideas back to the fore. I used to make totally unsalable work that used live feed surveillance systems. It was entirely site-specific. Everyone thinks that the piece that made my career was 89 seconds…but that’s not really true.
The piece that really launched my career was called Ornithology. I built a tower in the back of a tiny, 300-square foot gallery in Soho. The tower allowed the viewer to bird watch the life in the airshaft between the buildings. The shaft was full of pigeons that we viewed via twelve surveillance cameras. I also did a piece called The Whites Were a Mystery that was actually shot on Super 8 but employed that same surveillance gaze and examined how we attach narrative to it. My work has always had a lot to do with surveilling everyday life. I’m really interested in that gaze: even if I’m not using live cameras, there’s a way of filming that really takes that on and that’s really central to Rape of the Sabine Women. Of course it’s also important in White on White, since it factors heavily into the “thriller” quality of the piece.
KW: Can you tell me a little bit about how you transitioned from the earlier body of work to now?
ES: There was a point where I went from being interested in surveilling things in daily life to realizing that you could get actors to do those things—you wouldn’t necessarily have to wait for things to happen: the action could be directed. I always tell people that 89 Seconds was also a surveillance piece. It was really just a surveillance situation on a Baroque theater set! That’s a connection that people never make.
If you put a bunch of actors in a room, they’re still people and it’s still cinema verité, even if they’re acting. When we moved into the house to shoot Rape of the Sabine Women, we slept and worked and lived there for four days of rehearsal and then four days of filming. Because we were living in the house twenty-four hours a day and shooting for ten to 12 hours at a time, there was that point where peoples’ characters and peoples’ real lives started to mix. That was really interesting to me, especially when someone has a camera on almost all the time. Even in a theatrical setting, you’re still getting the cinema verité experience. The fights are purely theatrical, but the waiting around is not. I’m really interested in those real and fictional moments colliding.
The question that interested me is: what is the Rape of the Sabine Women myth about really? It’s about a bunch of men who don’t have women, they go out and steal some, some shit happens, and then there’s a big fight. In the myth, there’s a happy ending; in our version, not so much. The myth is really about loneliness. So then you take the loneliness and desire in the theatrical realm and rub it up against the loneliness and desire of real life; then you have something.
There are points in the film where you see an empty room and there it is: the loneliness of real life. For me it’s about the problem of how you film desire without being maudlin or falling back on Hollywood clichés? How do you capture this thing that is real but ineffable? How do you film all sorts of desire, not just sexual desire but other sorts of desire as well, like wanting to go to the moon or wanting to get very rich…
KW: …and can you actually sense the difference in these desires?
ES: That’s the challenge, and to do it without being cliché. I could grapple with that challenge for the rest of my life.
KW: What’s the biggest misconception about your work? What is the narrative that’s told about you and what do people leave out when they write about you?
ES: Often writers will say that I’m a studio artist that makes films about paintings. And no, actually, that’s really not what I do. It could have been about the surveillance monitor in the supermarket or it could have been about what’s going on in that shop window or a window in a bus, but it just so happened that it was about what caught my eye in a painting.
KW: I really hate when artists get written into a really tiny narrative in arts writing.
ES: It’s all about the commodification of the work, really. In order to commodify the work, you have to be able to define it for the audience. In the same way that the work isn’t supposed to be difficult, the writing falls into the same, neat categorizations. Journalists are so limited these days—it’s become a lot like advertising. The pigeonholing is frustrating, and we just have to try and fight against it individually.
That brings me to something that’s rarely written about my work, and that is the idea of the filmmaker and the artist as an explorer, in the classic definition of the word. Instead of the explorer bringing back scientific data, what Rufus Corporation attempts is an artistic expedition. When you look at the work of those old explorers in a contemporary context, it really feels like art. The films of Ernest Shackleton are the most obvious example. There was something really important to me in this most recent journey to Kazhakstan; the expedition was about coming to the edge of our own understanding of the world and looking out from there.