History and Ownership: Interview with Johan Grimonprez

Johan Grimonprez’s film Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is listed in the IMDB under “documentary,” which is like calling a triple-shot hazelnut soy latte a cup of coffee. Yes, there is archived footage of actual plane hijackings, but there is also a deer on a bed, buildings collapsing, and a voiceover that explains, “All plots tend to move deathward.” His film Double Take (inspired by a Borges short story) is about echoes and mirroring, originals and copies: Alfred Hitchcock and his body doubles, the US and Russia during the Cold War. Neither film “makes sense” in a linear, straightforward way, but they evoke another kind of comprehension: an understanding more emotional and intuitive than coldly logical. I talked with Grimonprez recently about these projects.

Johan Grimonprez, still/installation view of Double Take at Sean Kelley Gallery (2009).

Bean Gilsdorf [laughing]: Let’s start with an easy question: what is history?

Johan Grimonprez: The first thing I would answer with is history in the plural, histories. Very often power gets condensed in how history is being written. Walter Benjamin said, ‘History is written by the victors,’ yeah? It’s how a nation legitimizes itself, a way of holding people together. Political structures condense themselves, and power is a big part of that. So like in Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y when Leila Khaled hijacks a plane, she sort of rewrites herself back into history, into the history of Israel and what’s been told about the Palestinians. And since she doesn’t have a country, she renames the plane ‘Independent State of Palestine,’ and this is, in a sense, rewriting history. So history is not a history, but it’s many histories. Of course, we all have our own histories, and it’s where histories intersect that we get into politics.

BG: How did you decide on the subjects and themes that are in Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y and in Double Take, as histories that you wanted to share?

JG: Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y started as research in how we say goodbye. If you take a plane there’s this whole architecture of paranoia…we’re all reduced to terrorists and criminals. For me the research was in how saying goodbye has been affected by the culture of fear, to analyze where that comes from, how our most intimate things are contextualized by fear. And in the 60s you had interviews with individuals like Leila Khaled or Rima Tannous Eissa, but by the mid-70s they have totally disappeared from the screen. For Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y I went back in time, because I had a feeling that the individual was there. I wanted to go back to see the information that was there about the individual, and look at other histories.

Johan Grimonprez, still from Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997). DVD, 68 minutes.

The 80s for me was a period of big change: that’s when CNN first started off and got big with terrorism, with Reagan and the Iran hostages; four months later you have MTV; journalists started taking video cameras into the field instead of Bolex; the length of television edits went from eight seconds to four seconds. The trajectory in Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is about what happened in the mid-70s, for example when you have counterterrorist forces who adopt the strategy of shooting the terrorists on sight—one bullet in the heart, one bullet in the head—and never show a hijacker on television, don’t give him the media coverage. So it was what Freud would call suppressed.

BG: So you wanted to show the progression from terrorists having a voice and a media presence…?

JG: I don’t know, maybe as a kid of the 60s…a bigger question for me as an artist is: where do you stand politically? Not only that, but as a filmmaker, where do you stand in the world? When I was in school I saw the Iraq war, and I thought it was ludicrous how [the networks] spliced commercials with war footage. As a filmmaker you work with your vocabulary, you work with where you stand in the world…all of that came into the picture.

I was living in Belgium and I had to say goodbye all the time, and that goodbye was framed by taking planes, but that was framed by security gates…and as ridiculous as it might seem, taking off your shoes, being searched, it’s a very violent act. And all these things are related for me. The political stuff, the shift from the 60s to the 80s, this rapid progression of images, it’s all mixed.  And that condensed itself in Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y with the text from Don DeLillo’s Mao II, where a novelist is talking with a terrorist. That conversation is a metaphor, for me, of the research. I went to ABC news to do research and punched in the keyword hijacking, and it shaped itself.

BG: At the end of Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, in the credits, you show all the sources of the footage you use. And you obtained permission for that material. It seems like most artists today—unless they anticipated copyright problems—wouldn’t do that. You cleared the rights…

JG: It’s a crucial question, a very good question. It clearly shows all the ambiguities that I live with as well. First of all, people told me I was crazy to do a film about hijacking, and I think if I were to go back to ABC News now they wouldn’t give me the permission. Here’s some guy, some artist, and he’s obsessive and wants to see everything about hijacking—as much as he can!

Johan Grimonprez, Inflight Magazine.

BG: …You would have been put on some government list immediately…

JG: Well, I probably am! For my book Inflight Magazine I wanted to republish an interview Leila Khaled did with Der Spiegel in Germany, and I had to call her and get permission. And I also wanted to talk with Ricardo Dominguez of the group Digital Zapatismo, and he said, “If you call me and email me, you’re gonna be on the blacklist.” I gave the book to a gallerist, he wanted to take it back to Europe, and it was confiscated by Homeland Security.

But to come back to the copyright issue, I think it’s an interesting question because I have other works where I don’t clear the rights. Because who owns images? We all own those images because we grow up with them, they’re part of our memory, it’s what we share as a story…even though the stories can be read in different ways. Who owns those images? It’s not corporations who own our memory and our past—but they do.

Who has access? I would never have found so much crucial footage if I hadn’t gone to the Institut Nationale d’Archive in Paris, which is a public institution. The television archives are publicly owned, and there’s something to be said for that. But yet even when I had access to them, I had to pay so much that I couldn’t afford it. Whereas ABC News said, ‘Yeah, come, just watch everything and if you buy or not we don’t care.’ So on one hand I would say that ABC works better than the INA, although as an effort I think it’s so much more crucial that it’s collected memory—but then the way it’s structured it doesn’t function…typical France! But ABC News had access to the World Television Network [now defunct] and the British Television Network. It’s the same for Double Take because we had the European Channel as commissioning editor, which makes your budget and your audience bigger, but you have to clear everything officially.

So what do you choose? Do you want to have a bigger audience and show the work more and have a bigger impact, and clear the rights? Or not clear the rights and be relegated to a different circuit? I always tell my students, they’re going to sue you when you earn money—but if you stay in the museum world they’re never going to sue you.

Johan Grimonprez, Still from Double Take (2009). 80 minutes, digital beta, edition of 15.

BG: But you still go back and forth, right?

JG: Yeah, it’s a complicated matter. If I hadn’t cleared the rights [for Double Take] with Universal, it never could have been released in the United States. It’s very schizophrenic, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be critical and still question. With Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y you’re sponsoring that corporate world of who owns images, but at the same time you can criticize it. I would choose for having the bigger arena. I think it’s interesting that Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y was shown on NBC Universal, that it was shown on BBC4. It’s important to get it out there, but that means you clear the rights. It’s crucial that the discussion is held, but from the mainstream arena you can still be critical and that tension is interesting to explore.

BG: One of the other things I’m struck by is your use of recurring motifs. One of them—and it’s really beautiful—is the falling or collapsing house or building. Can you tell me about that, where that comes from?

JG: I used to describe that as the permanent state of homelessness in the world and the sense of belonging. Because very often when I talk about Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y and Double Take it’s reductive: I talk about the medium, I talk about politics, but what’s not talked about is how intimate and personal and autobiographical the work is. Being displaced, that concept of belonging is so strong for me. But a lot of people recognize this, they’re also living is a world where they feel displaced and are looking for a sense of belonging, trying to redefine what desire is and how you live with someone, even on a small scale. I mean yes, it’s about politics, but also every kiss is a political act. A scattered home, a rupture, is a personal thing, and it’s abstracted, but still it’s in there. There’s a series of images in Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y where the deer jumps on the bed, then an underwater marriage, and a plane flies into a house, and then there’s a television audience clapping. It’s all these commercial messages jumbled up—but where do you carve out your own story? That’s what that house is, that house that was destroyed.