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Features / September 20, 2012

Omer Fast on Making the News New Again

Near the end of Berlin-based artist Omer Fast‘s video 5,000 Feet is the Best (2011), a suburban family packs their station wagon for a holiday trip into the country. Outside the city, they come across a group of armed men digging without explanation in the middle of a road. They stop, pause, and then continue slowly on their way. Meanwhile, a surveillance image from above shows the car targeted in an unmanned aerial drone’s crosshairs. As their car passes the armed men, there’s a flash. In the next scene, they emerge from their destroyed car, bloodied.

It’s a chilling chain of events—based on interviews Fast conducted with a former US military drone pilot—more familiar to the badlands of Pakistan than suburban America. And that’s part of Fast’s point in 5,000 Feet is the Best: to blur the roles of victim and perpetrator.

Fast’s latest exhibition, “Continuous Coverage,” curated by Melanie O’Brian for the Power Plant, brings together three key works—CNN Concatenated (2002), 5,000 Feet is the Best and Continuity (2012), which debuted earlier this summer at dOCUMENTA (13). Canadian Art’s Bryne McLaughlin caught up with the artist in Toronto last week.

Bryne McLaughlin: Language plays an important part in much of your work, whether it’s the truncated word clips in CNN Concatenated (2002) or the narrative constructions in 5,000 Feet is the Best (2011). You mentioned in your artist’s talk for the Power Plant show that part of the challenge you felt fitting in as a teenaged immigrant to the US from Israel was learning and adapting to the American lingua franca. How does that experience of language and the sometimes ambiguous power of words carry through in your work?

Omer Fast: Well, I think just biographically, having acquired the language and, with it, the identity made me very aware at a fairly young age of being inside and outside a culture of a language. That’s something that probably still resonates in my work—having this position of being both inside and outside in the case of the situations and stories I convey.

It’s also about realizing the degree to which the things that we take for granted—like our identities or the expressions and idioms of language—how much of that is acquired and how much is constructed. This is a very basic lesson that I had somewhat early on. I think most of us arrive at this understanding eventually, but for me it was something that became very critical in terms of observing the world around me.

It’s a consideration I still apply to my work and the subjects in my work. In other words, trying to convey the information from the inside, talking to the people almost in a way that a journalist would—asking questions, but at the same time pulling back a little bit and questioning the activity, putting it under scrutiny, and then carefully choosing the means which I employ to retell the story. In that way, I suppose my works try to have their cake and eat it too.

BM: Yes, it seems that there is always a third-person perspective, a hovering point of view of the other that brings a certain objectivity to your work. Take CNN Concatenated, for instance, which started as a dictionary project amassed through word clips taken from CNN news broadcasts. What prompted you to turn this catalogue of more than 10,000 words into a personal narrative told through the multiple voices of CNN news anchors?

OF: Well, it was an open-ended project that I wasn’t going just to present as an archive. I think there’s a possibility in doing that, but I’m never interested in just collecting; I’m always interested in constructing something more out of the facts or stories that I collect.

For CNN Concatenated, I always had some kind of narrative in mind, even though I wasn’t sure what that was going to be. With 200 or 300 words collected, you can begin to construct some fairly rudimentary sentences with an eye to having some kind of relationship to what the material that you’re collecting is about—what the news, as it were, is addressing.

I started the project at the end of 2000, I think, or maybe the beginning of 2001. Then history caught up with it. I had just moved from New York to Berlin when 9/11 happened, and I felt that the project had to be somewhat drastically reoriented in order to not only include bits and pieces of reporting from that day onwards, but also, more importantly, to create a narrative that addressed these events in an almost personal way—but also a pseudo-personal way. I’m using borrowed words literally, channeling almost in a way you might speak if you were possessed by the medium. And so the kind of character, the subjectivity in the work, is one that tries to make sense of the news as it was happening at the time, while at the same time speaking with that language of the news, borrowing the words, and the texts and the images around them, in order to create that very personal stream of consciousness.

BM: The video feels very frenetic just as the network news displays you’ve sampled are; they’re designed with multiple graphics and news feeds competing for attention with the talking head. But then you confuse that information overload with a personal narrative, directly addressed to the viewer, that goes from accusatory to apologetic. Is that an attempt to mirror the speed of the media against the trajectory of storytelling that you’re interested in?

OF: Yes, plus it’s also injecting the work with aspects of a character, and I keep going back to this notion that there is a subjectivity behind it. With that 24-hour news cycle there isn’t that subjectivity, it is a rapid composite of things. There are, of course, many reporters and many sides to the issues, and the idea is to blanket the world and to represent it to you, to bring it to your home or your hotel room or your airport or wherever else and to be simultaneous and composite and all over at the same time.

What I wanted to do was to use that composite nature, but to boil it down, to filter down this notion of one individual who is both consuming this information and expectorating, or throwing it out again, re-forming it through some kind of weird digestive process and throwing up the news back at it—finding a way to speak back to the news using its own language.

Of course, it’s a construct: the person or character speaking is not me; it’s not anyone, in a sense. It’s multiple heads, a possessed medium in a way, channeling the news—but also trying to possess it, to reform what it has to say along some pretty personal terms.

BM: Does that touch on ideas of authority or authenticity for you?

OF: Yes, there is, of course, an implicit criticality to the project, but I think it tries to go beyond that. I don’t think it’s just about taking a piss and deconstructing the news. For me, that would be a fairly didactic thing to do.

I think what the piece tries to do is find a compelling way to address an audience and to keep that audience watching because there is something at stake, there is something emotional that’s being talked about. These are the fears of the person who, instead of being out there, engaging in the world, is sitting at home and watching it on TV—watching it so much that, in this case, he is unable to reflect on it in any way other than through it.

I think that balance between the composite aspect, the international aspect and the very specific local-fragile kind of subjectivity that anchors the piece is, for me, where the tension lies. And hopefully, that’s also where the fun is for people in decoding the piece—by watching what is happening, understanding what’s being conveyed in the image, where we are exactly in time, what that little snip of a map that we see is, what that logo is about—but at the same time keeping people listening to the thread of information that’s being re-formed in order to give expression to a person’s fears and fantasies.

BM: You also mentioned in your talk that you consider yourself a news junkie and that you were working at Time magazine when you started collecting these clips. Does that reflect your own experience of being caught up in the news?

OF: Yes, of course, but I think that’s inevitable when you’re making a piece. You immerse yourself. I was consuming news at home and working in a news organization and it seemed to make sense at the time to make use of that, to exploit that in order to make this piece. But I think it’s coincidental, really; it’s kind of background.

BM: The subject for your video 5,000 Feet is the Best also comes from news headlines, namely the ongoing controversy surrounding the US military’s use of unmanned aerial drones in places like Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. What is the story behind the development of this piece?

OF: I knew I wanted to make a piece about drones and the pilots who operate them, so I approached the US Air Force base from which these drones are controlled, which is about an hour outside of Las Vegas. Even though my producer was helping me apply for official permission to talk to the pilots, we knew from the beginning that it wouldn’t be possible. It’s very carefully controlled and they wouldn’t stand to gain anything from granting access to an artist.

At the same time, we had published ads on Craigslist asking pilots to contact us in order to participate in an artist’s film. We had responses from some people, and we also had a whole bunch of nutcases who responded, so that sort of filtered out who was real and interesting and who was not. At some point, I thought it doesn’t really make a difference if the person is crazy enough and wants to convince us that he’s a drone operator; if he’s good enough in convincing us, that would be just as good.

We were fortunate that we had some hits and some people who did want to speak with us, but then the FBI got involved and shut that whole thing down. But two people remained who seemed to be legitimate, so I flew to Las Vegas and ended up meeting with one of them over three days and we talked about his work, his experiences as a drone pilot.

BM: In the work, your interviews with the actual drone pilot are interspersed with a fictional narrative, with an actor playing the drone operator. How did that part of the work develop?

OF: After I met with the drone pilot, I had quite a bit of footage that I knew I wouldn’t be able to use—partly because his image had to be blurred and his voice had to be disguised, but also because the conversation was repeatedly interrupted and he eventually asked me not to use many of the things that he said; also, a lot of other things he told me were off-camera. I knew that the piece had to include those elements without recourse to the actual footage.

So there were gaps in the information, gaps in the visual information, and for the story that I had, I needed to fill these in some way. I thought of backing away from a straightforward talking head with possibly some documentary footage of drone attacks or drone surveillance that you might find on the Internet. I thought it would be interesting to reimagine our encounter in a fictional setting to allow some of the information that was left out of the in camera footage to percolate or infiltrate back in.

For example, the story about the family that goes out on a drive is an inversion of a story that he told me off-camera. So the piece tries to weave this material that is documentary and much more straightforward—like when the pilot talks with a disguised voice and blurred face—with a kind of fictionalized reimagining of some of what was told to me off-camera. There are no titles, there’s nothing to tell you, okay, now you’re watching the pilot, now you’re watching an actor. It’s a much more fluid weaving of those two modes.

BM: You took a similar approach in another recent work, The Casting (2007), where a constant shifting between retellings of a young US soldier’s experiences in Iraq and Germany knocks the viewer off balance, keeping them from settling in to a single narrative flow. Is this another attempt to force a critical distance from what you’re seeing?

OF: Yes. There’s a physical dimension to the work, too. As an installation, The Casting invites the viewer to walk around the film screens, so you’re involved in untangling the story literally by shifting your position in the space, walking around and seeing on one side the re-enactments that are very cinematically stylized; on the other side, you have the kind of documentary footage that has also been subject to quite a bit of editing. So, moving through the space, you have to engage with the two modes and decode them, in a way. The documentary footage and the fictionalized reimagining in 5,000 Feet is the Best are woven much more tightly together.

BM: Why did you make that switch from an installation-based approach to a more screen-based approach?

OF: I was exhausted. I think a gallery installation can possibly make for a richer experience. It’s also what differentiates art as film from straightforward cinema or a documentary that is shown on TV or in festivals. You do have the space and that’s a wonderful thing. You can actually activate the space much more than you do in a cinema, where people are traditionally stuck in their seats. Not just in replicating a quasi-cinematic viewing environment, trying to make a black box and trying to make it as dark and as acoustically viable as possible—of course, you can do that. It’s just that for 5,000 Feet is the Best I wanted to tightly weave those two modes, those two strands, together onto one screen. It’s just another approach.

BM: Your work takes on some fairly contentious issues—news media and 9/11, the personal traumas of soldiers in Iraq or military drone pilots—in, as you’ve explained, a blurring of documentary and fictional modes. Now you’re in the process of organizing a feature film. How much do you expect of the audience?

OF: A lot. I want people to sit down and watch these works, so I pay a lot of attention to pacing and the more formative things that you do when you’re telling a story cinematically. In the first couple of years just after graduate school, I was working, in a sense, to have an audience. Now I’ve been privileged enough to be in this niche with a given audience. I show my work in galleries and people come to see it.

But, for example, I did a project recently for Performa in New York that was a live theatrical production in front of an audience. Working that way is radically different than the careful crafting you do when you’re scripting and shooting something, where you have a ton of control. Working on this Performa project was very much about giving up that control, ceding that control. It was very spontaneous and it required quite a bit of improvisation from the performers who were involved. But in terms of what it was doing overall, it was very analogous to my other works.

Over three evenings, we had a guest who started the show by telling a story from his or her life onstage in front of the audience, including a performer who was listening to that story for the very first time. When the guest was finished, there was a rotation, and the person who just heard the story would have to repeat it on the spot in front of the audience to another performer who had been completely isolated from the first telling. And this happened six times, six subsequent renditions.

By the time you reached the sixth telling, the story had mutated to such a degree that it was completely different. The audience was able to track that, but also respond live to what was happening, to vent their displeasure or their pleasure at what was happening. This is obviously a radically different way of addressing an audience than the narrative-based work that I’ve done, but I don’t think my expectations have changed. What I’m concerned with first and foremost is communication and storytelling.

Bryne McLaughlin

Bryne McLaughlin is Deputy Editor at Canadian Art.