more feature articles:

Elsewhere Collaborative:
Community, Dispersal,
and Reciprocity
by Rebecca Dimling Cochran

Dependency, Power, and Intimacy or,
The Realm of Universal Prejudice
Julika Rudelius in conversation

with Niels Van Tomme

Niels Van Tomme: Earlier this week, I was reading Slavoj Žižek's Enjoy Your Symptom!, 1991. I'm really fascinated by his relationship to cinema. He considers fiction films the most significant, direct materialization of social fantasies and often refers to them as though they were reality. Conversely, when discussing your work, many people get stuck on the fiction-reality paradigm. While you borrow methods and stylistic elements that are clearly associated with documentary filmmaking, fictional elements also play a very important role in your work. It's sometimes deliberately unclear whether something is staged or not. How do you see the relationship between fiction and reality? Have we not moved beyond this simplistic opposition?

Julika Rudelius, stills from Tagged, 2005, three-channel video installation: three synchronized projections with separate soundtracks, 13:24 minutes, Dutch with English subtitles (all images courtesy of the artist)

Julika Rudelius: While the discussion about fiction and reality in film- or video-based art is somewhat new, it has been going on for a really long time in cinema. I'm always astonished that we are still caught up in this specific debate. When you come from a documentary background, it's customary to restage half of your shots. Photographers and filmmakers always ask people to repeat something or to reposition themselves. That was also my initial starting point: I could stage everything because the documentary is already staged. This whole fiction vs. reality discussion in art is a little belated; it took place in filmmaking years ago.

Julika Rudelius, still from Tagged, 2005

NVT: The first so-called documentary, Nanook of the North, 1922, is indeed already staged. Ever since, it has been widely acknowledged that the documentary genre relies on artificial construction, which continues to be central to theoretical discussions of non-fiction film.

Julika Rudelius, still from Tagged, 2005

JR: Exactly. It's the contemporary artworld's blissful ignorance. It always thinks that it invented the wheel. Meanwhile, the discussion has already happened, in much more depth, in another discipline or field that hasn't been labeled art. Why is this whole fiction and reality discussion still so alive in the artworld, then? I think it's because photography and film have not yet been made obsolete as truth-showing media by any other medium. At a certain moment, photography supplanted painting as the medium of truth. Nothing has yet come to challenge photography or film in this way. They are still the truth-transporting media, even though we are aware of their ways of manipulation. That's also their beauty, the lasting strength of this truth-factor.

Julika Rudelius, still from Tagged, 2005

Having said all that, the whole fiction-reality question is just not that interesting to me. It's only part of a method. While it's one element in my work, it has never been my main concern. It's more a question of "Selbstvergessenheit"—I don't know what the right word is in English. It's a weird and beautiful state, a sort of trance where you reach a heightened awareness while you're not very conscious of it. I often get into this state when I experience this in-between place, and it's the moment when I see things very clearly. It's awkward and painful, but very strong. Very often, it's triggered by behavior, movements or statements.

Julika Rudelius, still from Tagged, 2005

In a certain sense, I'm indeed using many documentary aspects: I'm preparing and I'm casting like a documentary filmmaker. But I'm not rebuilding something that I have seen in reality. Instead, I'm rebuilding that original state or feeling.

NVT: Werner Herzog calls this "the ecstatic truth," an exploration of the intensified truths of situations and characters. In his documentaries, he uses staged and fictionalized elements to come closer to the truth of his subjects, but mostly to the truth of his vision. There seems to be a remarkable parallel with the way in which you work.

Julika Rudelius, still from Tagged, 2005

JR: What I admire a lot about Herzog's films is that he is quoting the genres pretty purely. He shows the edges between fiction and documentary, but he can still keep the magic. That's really amazing. In my work, I try to make he borders invisible, so that the traditional formats blend into one another. It's a way of wiping out my traces. In a lot of my work, I try to zoom in on very basic universal experiences, by way of behaviors or intimacy, but also through aesthetics. I construct imagery to unconsciously enhance these little behaviors to the point where the film becomes so designed that the viewer is no longer aware of the aesthetics. I try to get something that triggers my thinking—this moment of total recognition—which I then twist around and start manipulating. I hope this also works for others.

Julika Rudelius, stills from Forever, 2006, two-channel video installation: two synchronized projections with separate soundtracks, 16:40 minutes, English

NVT: You locate your work in a wide range of distinct social milieux. There is also a certain diversity in the issues that you tackle, ranging from male immigrants' fashion to the sexual techniques of women. What are the underlying themes that connect the different issues you address?

Julika Rudelius, still from Forever, 2006

JR: Whenever I'm totally desperate at the start of a new project, a good friend of mine always tells me that my new film will be exactly about the same things as my previous films: dependency, power, and intimacy. That's probably the underlying structure. I work with many milieux or classes because I'm not interested in offering any fashionable mix. I deliberately work with very small groups because I am not interested in questions of representativeness. Nor am I interested in what people have to say as individuals. I'm trying to capture the original state that triggers a film project. As such, I strive to eliminate the details of what they're saying, which has something to do with the way I interpret intimacy. Nowadays, the media have reduced intimacy to an abundance of dirty secrets. They have bastardized the concepts of intimacy and privacy. We find out more about people every day, but I don't want to know these things; it makes me feel really awkward. The words they're saying have nothing to do with intimacy. Intimacy lies in very small in-between spaces, which I try to access by using nearly similar people. I don't want you to start paying attention to what they're actually saying, but I do want you to focus on an overall feeling that arises.

Julika Rudelius, still from Forever, 2006

NVT: There's a very peculiar tension in your work. While you are talking about intimacy, you show us people who are almost exclusively talking in clichés. After a while, however, we go beyond the literal meaning of these clichés and suddenly realize that these people are actually trying to express something substantial.

JR: I had a very interesting experience last Monday. I showed Tagged, 2005—my video about third-generation immigrant men in Holland and their preoccupation with fashion—to somebody. Afterwards, she told me that it was a very strong and repelling experience. She asked me how I felt when people state such horrifying things, referring to the moment in the video when one of the characters says that his mother always used to do his laundry and that now that he is married, his wife takes care of that. I told her that, were In—a white forty-year-old blond middle-class womann—to say such things, she would probably think that I'm a working woman who has her act together. Why did she think that things were going too far? Where does that come from? It comes from stereotypen—that is, a mental image about the people in the film, but also about me.

I'm trying to tap into the universal realm of prejudice, which is very interesting territory. We are all raised to think that we should not have prejudices and should not think this or that. I'm convinced that the only way to get beyond these prejudices is not by avoiding them, but rather by confronting them. You should try to put yourself in situations that make you outgrow them. We all have prejudices, which we all deny to different egrees. I often work with that very interesting phenomenon.

Julika Rudelius, still from Forever, 2006

In my video Forever, 2006, wealthy older women talk about beauty and privilege. While these are really intimate things, they always sound like total clichés. That's the crucial contradiction. Have you ever met a person who could say something intelligent about being happy? That would be astonishing. I've never met somebody like that. It's totally redundant to talk about happiness. In a way, language turns everything into absurdity, and for me it also turns the idea of confession ad absurdum. People conceive of my work as confessional, but my characters are never confessing anything, and I think that's kind of wild.

Julika Rudelius, still from Adrift, 2007, video installation, HD video, 4:50 minutes

NVT: While your video Looking at the other/desire, 2003, is small in scale and intention, it could be seen as the motto of your entire oeuvre. Here, in confronting your viewers with the Other—which is always a psychological construction—you are actually confronting them with themselves. That's what's so interesting about the work.

JR: Yes, because I am also confronting myself. I can always distract myself with other people. Ultimately, however, it is always about a total confrontation with myself. And I want to provoke that in others too.

NVT: While the characters in your videos seem to be speaking their own words, you are actually giving them instructions via headphones. Clearly, they are acting in a scenario of your design. They're being manipulated. They are also often themselves manipulating. What's more, the work is manipulative in nature. What interests you in all these ambiguous layers?

Julika Rudelius, still from Adrift, 2007, video installation, HD video, 4:50 minutes

JR: When my characters are talking, you have the feeling that they are remote- controlled, which they are. My technique has much to do with this: they can hear me but don't see me. All of a sudden they also become a victim of the manipulation. I build up a mood, and then I try to break it. I'm also simultaneously trying to shift it into another manipulation. It's often so that people go through different stages of comprehension when they are viewing my work as a direct effect of the manipulation. I'm talking about it now as if it were precisely calculated. But when I'm working, it's sort of inevitable. It's the only way for me to do it.

NVT: Although you are mostly known for your large two- or three-channel video-installations, a significant part of your work deals with more poetic, more subtle, almost fragile observations. What role do works such as Adrift, 2007, Where do we migrate to, 2005, and Looking at the other/desire, 2003, play in your oeuvre?

Julika Rudelius, stills from Adrift, 2007, video installation, HD video, 4:50 minutes

JR: I became known with these multi-channel installations in which people talk a lot, but the other videos are more about capturing an underlying feeling. In the first place, the aesthetics and the small movements are what make me think. The dialogue makes all these things understandable for other people. Of course, certain words also trigger something in me. In the end, however, it's more about the combination of what they say and the way in which they say it. The smaller pieces without dialogue are more about letting my intuitive part take control and see if I can get away with it.... Are you texting somebody?

NVT: No, I actually took off this paper bracelet from an event I just attended.... I'm sorry, that must have been very distractive.

JR: That's so weird... I don't think you could have done that ten years ago. What you just did is such a blueprint for texting. Looking in your lap like that would have been totally inappropriate behavior in the past. These kinds of awkward acts are the situations that I use in my films. Nowadays the connotation of looking into your lap has changed drastically. It used to be something for which a thirteen-year-old boy would be reprimanded. It would have been deemed strange for an adult man to look in his lap while you're talking to him, but now it's totally accepted. It's a bit scary because in ten years nobody will understand what my work is about anymore. I'm such a dinosaur of the dubious awkwardness factor.

Niels Van Tomme is a curator, researcher, art critic, and frequent contributor to ART PAPERS. The Director of Arts and Media at Provisions Library in Washington, DC, he lives in New York and Washington. His independently-curated exhibitions have been shown internationally.

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