20 Questions for Isaac Julien

“Playtime,” Isaac Julien’s 2014 film installation on the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis, is showing this week at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (MCAD) in Manila, while “Vagabondia,” the film, for which he was nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize in 2001, is currently playing as part of the Center for Contemporary Art Singapore’s exhibition “Theatrical Fields,” running through November 2. I caught up with the British artist and filmmaker while he was in Singapore and discussed his upcoming projects, his creative processes, and more:

What are you currently working on?
A film project about Brazil though it might also an object-based or sculpture project, a first for me. It will be a kind of semi-portrait of the architect Lina Bo Bardi, a seminal figure of modernist architecture in Brazil. It’s the centenary of her birth this year and she is going to be the subject of a MoMA exhibition quite soon. She designed several museums, including the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP)
How does this project fit with your previous works?
In a way, it’s tied to some of my earlier bio projects, like “Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask,”1996, which was a portrait of Frantz Fanon, who was a French psychiatrist and philosopher, a bit of a ‘black’ Jean Paul Sartre. And I also made another project “Looking for Langston” in 1989, an African-American poet and activist.
 What is your creative process?
It can sometimes starts from a news event that interests me. I collect newspaper clippings and other materials, like archival footage. And then I start taking photographs to get some photographic images together.
What’s more important for you, the aesthetics or the narrative?
Both are important, but maybe the aesthetic is more important.
What got you interested in Lina Bo Bardi as a subject?
I had a show in Brazil in 2012 at SESC Pompeia, which is a wonderful building that got redesigned by Lina Bo Bardi as an art center. It has a brutalist architecture but in a way it’s a very utopian space. A lot of my ideas get sparked from traveling, looking at architectural spaces. A lot of my work begins from the location, not the characters. So for example in “Vagabondia,” it really started from the museum and then it was, ‘how can one do a piece of work that might bring out certain aspects of the architectural memory of the space?’ A certain colonialism history and the relationship with slavery during the Victorian period, but not brought up in a direct correlation. So my ideas develop, sometimes from theoretical interest, intellectual interest, or just emotional ones.
And in the case of Lina Bo Bardi?
It comes out of her fantastic personality and the amazing things that she did. When I saw the SESC Pompeia building it prompted me to look more into her work and then I realized that a building I had seen in Bahia in my first visit to Brazil in 1997, and I remember being very struck by a beautiful staircase she’d designed, very iconic in terms of design. And then recently I saw an exhibition of her work at SESC Pompeia and there is a photo of an art performance that took place on those stairs, and I’ve been told many more happened, so now I’m looking to find footage of those to learn more. I have a Brazilian researcher looking into this. I’m also looking at films by Glauber Rocha, a Brazilian political filmmaker who was very active in the 70s.
 How far along are you in this Brazilian film project?
I’ve been researching this for a year and I’m no way near finish. I don’t think I’ll start filming for another year, at the earliest and it can take another year to edit the piece…
 So we’re not going to see another Isaac Julien work for another two years?
Maybe not (laugh). Well, there might be a few short-work pieces that I’m going to make in between, but the Brazil project will take some time. And I am also thinking of creating some design pieces. It’s always been an interest of mine and Lina Bo Bardi was also a furniture designer, so there is a link here.
 You’ve had some very famous actors participating in your recent projects. How does this work?
They’ve actually had very organic relationships to the projects. For James Franco, I met him when he was living in London, in fact I’d been talking to him for about three years about “Playtime” and he was very interested, but it was very hard to get him because he’s so busy. Then he got to shoot a big film in London, and it worked out. Maggie Chung was introduced to me by two friends and she was actually familiar with my work already. She’s actually really retired from making films — because she really want to concentrate on her work as a sound designer and an artist, and I think that’s why she became interested in working with me on those projects (“Ten Thousand Waves” and then “Playtime”), because of their art context.
 Are you planning to collaborate with other famous actors for the Lina Bo Bardi project?
I don’t know really. I don’t think I try to make works that have famous people in them; it’s more to do with the character and the scenario and situation. For example, in the case of “Playtime,” I think James Franco really fitted the character because he himself makes art, he understands the art world, and he has a certain empathy with what I’m making.
 Have you ever thought of doing a feature film?
In a way I probably did that in the early 90s because I had a film at Cannes called Young Soul Rebels, which won the critics prize. And after that I did several film essays for television. So, in a way, I’ve continued to make films, but they’re not movies; essay works.
 What other plans do you have?
I will have a kind of retrospective at the De Pont Museum in Holland at the end of January 2015.
What's the first artwork you ever sold?
When I was 20, it was a painting, titled “Dancing partners" which I sold while it was at the Royal Academy Summer show in London. It allowed me to buy my first Super8 camera.
Do you still paint?
I haven’t for a long time. But I’ve been thinking about it recently.
What's the most indispensable item in your studio?
Mark Nash, and everybody else who helps me in my studio.
What's your favorite place to see art?
The Schaulager in Basel. They do amazing exhibitions when they work with film and video.
What’s the last great exhibition you’ve seen?
“Robert Gober: The Heart is Not a Metaphor,” now at the MoMa in New York, it’s immaculately installed.
What's your art-world pet peeve?
Placement dinners.
What under-appreciated artist do you think people should know about?
The British artist David Harrison; he’s a unique painter, a true artist.
Right now I’m learning how to swim!