“Storytelling will always be an interpretation of time.” The filmic and philosophical complexities of Johan Grimonprez

With artistic beginnings as a photography student at KASK in Ghent, Roeselare native Johan Grimonprez (1962) is a filmmaker and artist who now lives and works in Greece and New York. His films are invested in large questions: what the role of art and politics is, how the structures of narrative time function, and how these ideas confront the viewer. Read below the idiosyncratic and in-depth historical and theoretical elaborations on his films in lieu of his current show Every Day Words Disappear at Kristof De Clercq Gallery, on display till Sunday 16th December.

At its core, what is your work about?

Our world is packed with an abundance of images that constantly bombard us, and inevitably much of our reality today is filtered through cinema and media imagery. I question the limits of art as I question my own. While I use the language of art (amongst other tools for investigating our so-called consensus reality), I’m more interested in its new potential spaces. What is a documentary, a work of fiction? In political life, there are many narratives. As Hannah Arendt once pointed out, “a certain aestheticisation of political life” will lead to fascism.

Whereas traditional documentaries are tied to epistemological limitations to describe reality, my film dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y plays with the presupposed notions of structure and chronology. For that reason I choose to depict a double narrative that sets a television timeline against the backdrop of a story. In the classical documentary, chronology and structure are logical and a specific vocabulary is used to describe reality, whereas in my film, the chronology of hijacking is underscored by a fictionalised storyline based on a novel by Don DeLillo, which plays with how these notions collide. The film also tries to trace intimate politics to point to historical alternatives. Reality is always co-constructed: it is not only the news or the political forces beyond us, but it is also inside us; it is part of our desire. I criticise certain notions or structures of the state, but I feel that I am also implicated in them. On an emotional level, one feels several things at the same time: revulsion and desire, seduction and repulsion.

What is its starting point and statement?

Cinema is about an unfolding reel in time — at its most basal, its a medium that makes use of time in an abstract way in order to construct a narrative. Storytelling will always be an interpretation of time. Who owns our imagination in a world of existential vertigo where truth has become a shipwrecked refugee? Is it not the storyteller who can contain contradictions, who can slip between the languages we have been given and who can become a time-traveler of the imagination?

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once coined that we are not made of atoms as scientists say, but that we are actually made of stories. Stories are what holds us together, or tears us apart, shaping our very idea of belonging. Ironically, French writer Maurice Blanchot called language an act of murder, because naming things would be identical to killing them. But novelist Alfred Döblin claims exactly the opposite: language, he says, is a form of loving others; language lets us know why we are together. But maybe a more pertinent depiction is Vietnamese filmmaker Trin-Min Ha’s idea of language as a “leaking boat”. A lifeboat we are all stuck on together. It’s the disappearing meeting place, but also the same dire biosphere we all share.

I often think we live in a society deprived of something essential, not even aware of what we actually miss, since we lack the stories and concepts. It’s not dissimilar to the final scene of Jean-Luc Godard’s film Alphaville, which depicts a society in which every word relating to the idea of love is banned at the threat of a death sentence. 

How do you actually work on a piece, from start to finish?

I do take a lot of time in the editing of each of my films. I like to chew the cud like a cow: through four stomachs! But working in this way helps me to see parallels and continuities in them. I pick up on stuff and only later realise how present it is in today’s discourse. It’s invested with meaning, but maybe you pick it up in an unconscious way, and when it’s out there you let the material take you. Just like how novelists say the character takes over and dictates how the story is being told.

The juxtaposition of images and narratives shows how memory works: domestic banality coexists with the mainstream media. The more intimate, domestic stuff is also part of history. For example, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when 9/11 happened: drinking a cup of coffee over a household quarrel. It was like watching Star Trek in pyjamas as a kid in the 70s. Both worlds are colliding all the time.

There’s also a whole shift going on within the art world in terms of its own relationship to new media, to web design and whatnot. For me, though, it’s a secondary question; something I shy away from. Rather, it’s the connection to the other and the storytelling involved that matters. A new way of storytelling creates a new way of being, a new ontology, of being together that has the power to overcome the stories of “havingness” and greed, and to create new stories that slip between the languages we have been given and transform them.  In fact, we are in dire need to reclaim the story of how we define ourselves and how we define society. We need to rethink the human narrative, and allow for the becoming of new ontologies, based on love and not on fear. 

We interviewed neuroscientist Raymond Tallis for Shadow World, and asked him the question, “Why can’t we tickle ourselves?” He explained that tickling is about surprise and about feeling the unpredictability of other people, and the sense of their otherness. So when tickling oneself there cannot be this element of surprise; this profound sense of the otherness of other people. It’s an ontological realisation of the other: you tickle, therefore I am!

What are the challenges you face as an artist working in Belgium today?

I grew up in Belgium, jammed in between the USSR and the US and their respective ideologies. You’re always split between two languages, Flemish and French, so you live with subtitles. When you buy a bottle of milk, it always comes with a translation in the other language. When I was growing up, I would watch Star Trek and The A-Team with subtitles. So I always related to this doubleness, this experience of living at a certain distance from the original — which can be seen in Tintin’s Thomson and Thompson, who cut a very Belgian figure. That’s also where Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe underneath the image of a pipe comes from. It’s a subtitle just like the ones you see on Belgian television.

Johan Grimonprez’s Every Day Words Disappear is on display at the Ghent-based Kristof De Clercq Gallery until Sunday 16th December.