MEETING WITH JOSEPH DAVID
WEDNESDAY 10th MAY 2017 AT 6:30 PM
EMA / École Municipale d’Arts, place de Picardie (Entrée rue Félix Adam)
62200 - Boulogne-Sur-Mer
Saison Video is presenting the young artist Joseph David for the screening of PUMP, his first film. In it, he invites the British artist Andrew Kötting to share his time and career by pumping, on an handcar. Removed from the ground and from a certain height, they chose the old 18 km viaduct built for the Aerotrain devised by Jean Bertrain in 1969. Pump is a work in praise of absurdity and slowness: an unusual journey, an inner journey, and one which deals with gratifying encounters.
Two men, two pairs of arms devoted to one activity: PUMPING. Perched at a height of eight meters above ground, two Sisyphii are actively engaged is propelling a strange contraption along a concrete viaduct. Why are they pumping? We have no idea, and neither do they! All we do know is that they expend great energy in doing so, as they proceed from one point to the next along a track 18 kilometres long. From the fields of the Beauce to the forest and the suburbs of Orleans, they consider the world below, with which they communicate at times, and the world above, within which they have isolated themselves. JD
YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE, MY ONLY SUNSHINE…
Mo Gourmelon: First of all let’s dwell on the title of your film, PUMP, which is quite onomatopoeic. Was it chosen from the outset? The subtitle “A free adaptation of the myth of Sisyphus” sets the tone. How did this project come about, full as it is of drive and energy, heading towards absurdity?
Joseph David: To start with the project was titled And meanwhile, they pumped…That’s the title of the first teaser, the project’s first demo! During a grants committee meeting, one of the jury members advised us to create a shorter, more “dynamic” title. We didn’t take long to find one, and I don’t regret that choice at all.
The subtitle is there to provide viewers with information, because the film is indeed a free adaptation of the myth of Sisyphus, and in particular the version written by Albert Camus. Instead of pushing a rock up a mountain every day, with Andre Kötting we pumped a railcar without any GOAL towards NOTHING on the old Aerotrain viaduct. The project came into being very simply. The viaduct is part of my landscape, close to Orléans, where I was born, and where I regularly go back. One day, when I was taking the train, an image came into my head as we passed by the viaduct: two men pumping away on it. Returning to Le Fresnoy, I described that image to Andrew, the guest artist, who worked with me on my first-year project. He was very excited by the idea and encouraged me to write a project. Messing around one day, I said to him: if I get a grant, will you pump with me? He instantly said YES. On the other hand, it was very complicated to put the project into practice…
MG: With the myth of Sisyphus, the fulfillment of the act is reduced to nothing every day. The hardship is indefinitely repeated, based on perpetual incompletion and failure. A punishment is meted out. PUMP is very good when it comes to the gratuitous gesture, but unlike the myth, the railcar being pumped by your arms moves forward. Reaching the point of arrival (if it has any sense) might be mathematically evaluated between the length in kilometres of the aqueduct and that daily progress. We share those outdoor exchanges and meetings with you and Andrew Kötting, depending on your moods. The project’s challenge seems to me to be laid down in its initial introduction: “Do we end up arriving somewhere when the journey’s only goal is to be made”?
JD: The last question in the synopsis that you quote bothers me a bit today, because it steers the way of seeing the film too much. Incidentally, I’m hesitating to keep it in the film’s communiqué. To get back to the myth, the subtitle clearly indicates a free adaptation, what’s involved is neither a representation of the myth, in any literal sense, nor providing an exact interpretation of Camus’ thinking, even if I was obviously inspired by it. In the film, to be sure, the fact of pumping is gratuitous, but it symbolizes the repetition of the daily life which man undergoes (the senseless nature of our existence, the tragic and dead-end character of experience, the repetition of absurd and futile gestures…). Camus’ essay starts with a violent statement, which had particular echoes for me: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide”. The words which end the essay were decisive for the genesis of the project: “The struggle itself [...] is enough to fill a man's heart.One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” What’s interesting is the reversal of the myth. Every day, Sisyphus obviously starts pushing that rock, but in so doing he also discovers a world…
As far as the form is concerned, you should know that it took six years for the project to see the light of day. The initial ideas and wishes evolved. When I conceived the project, I absolutely wanted there to be several journeys back and forth. For logistical reasons that was impossible. During the filming, we tried to keep up the illusion of back and forth, but it didn’t lead to anything conclusive in the editing. With the editor Baptiste Evrard, we thus decided to suggest a single one-way trip. We gave that illusion through the editing, and the film is full of false connections. The “progress” that you mention is quite beside the point for me… whether we advance or not is not very important, it’s the repetition of the gesture (the pumping) that’s important. Perhaps there’s another reading to be made, that of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence…).
The matter of the goal is interesting. As you said, “PUMP is very good when it comes to the gratuitous gesture”. As you’ve understood, this is what’s very important for me. At the risk of giving you a headache and losing readers forever, I’ll make a final reference to Georges Bataille this time… One day, I was listening to an old interview where he described his work as trying to deliver the existence of the goal. I hope that my film manages to do this a little. In the end, we arrive somewhere… (laughter).
MG: Could you come back to the choice of Andrew Kötting to share in this saga? Why him? How did you go about living together in such close quarters? Andrew Kötting grabs us with his spirit, his good humour, and his qualities as an actor. I don’t know him. Maybe he acts by being totally off-the-cuff. How did you manage to punctuate that search for encounters in fields and hamlets while in passing depicting beautiful characters and portraits in those exchanges?
JD: As I was saying, I met Andrew at Le Fresnoy. The discovery of his films was a breath of fresh air for me. What I saw and heard could make me die laughing, while at the same time terrifying me by the magnificent cruelty of life filling the screen. If I suggested that adventure to Andrew it was, among other things, because we have shared viewpoints about “reality” and the way of re-connecting with it. The physicality of the artistic act is part of all that. It seemed to me that by pumping like two madmen, perched on an abandoned viaduct, we might reflect something of the human condition. And if I invited Andrew to pump, it was because of his “furious madness”. A man capable of pedaling in a plastic swan for four weeks, and driving along the English coast in a camping car with his handicapped daughter and his 85-year-old grandmother and taking the inflatable shapes of his dead father and grandfather on a trip, that man is the ideal pumping companion.
Throughout the writing of the film, I did actually raise the question of how our daily life was going to be. At the same time, the way of life on that railcar would be one of adaptability. We would be living and sharing things for seven days in an area of 100 sq.ft. A restrictive life in a cramped space the same size as a prison cell, but outdoors. That’s why I wanted to discover Andrew’s daily life. So I spent a weekend with him in December 2011. I found out that Andrew was like in his films: genuine, eccentric, a force of nature with masses of vitality. I incidentally made a video portrait of him. In 2015, the summer before the shooting, he also had me to stay in his house in the Pyrenees. A house totally isolated in the mountains, with Spartan creature comforts. Life was lived according to the sun. To wash, you had to go to the icy but invigorating spring. We walked a lot, and talked about our lives. A complicity developed during that holiday. Living together subsequently came very naturally. In the film, Andrew is a companion. To be honest, even if you don’t see it much on the screen, the most difficult thing to deal with is probably me! Luckily there are pills of different colours…
Two kinds of encounters were planned from the start: unforeseen and programmed. The basic hypothesis was that the oddness of our situation would give rise to encounters and create discussions. Maybe people would talk to us more readily with that quirky communication procedure: talking with two guys perched 25 feet above the ground. That hypothesis bore fruit in no time and did give rise to incongruous exchanges. Then there were programmed encounters. There are people who give that trip meaning. So the two types of encounter play on a documentary and fictional style. Are those characters real or fictional? It’s up to the viewer to come up with his own hypotheses.
MG: I find Andrew Kötting very protective towards you. I especially remember one scene when he says to you: “Good pills, English breakfast”. He gives the impression of having taken responsibility for the supplies, as well as the pick-me-up. He has a way of not separating the song from the various activities, thus chanting an effort, and when he starts communicating with someone…
JD: As I said earlier, Andrew is a companion. I don’t know if he’s really protective. That impression possibly comes from the fact that he’s tougher, stronger, and older, and has more experience. That gives him a human quality which may seem all-encompassing.
As far as the songs are concerned, they were very present in the rushes. I wanted to keep them. In life he’s often singing, making various sounds with his mouth… What’s more, he’s an excellent creator of sound. The acoustic work he does in his films is impressive. So we had to use that material. It enabled us to punctuate the film and our efforts. The song “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine...” became a leitmotif in the film. Andrew makes it fit every occasion, for better (offering it to my grandmother) or for worse (by teaching it to me)… I really do sing out of tune!
MG: You had access to archival images and you use them in your film. What did you select? What attracts you in that utopia? Your project took time to work out. Did you make any egregious changes? And in the affirmative, what were your discussions, your encounters, your readings and the works seen which influenced the transformation of your project?
JD: There are two types of archival imagery: that of the Aerotrain project and Andrew’s and my personal archives. The film opens with archival images of the Aerotrain. We see it going at full speed on the 20 kilometre test track near Orléans. Those images plunge us back into the 1960s and show us their utopia: high speed. Jean Bertin’s project was part of the collective imagination, at a time when the craze for new technologies offered reasons for believing in an unlimited increase in speed (Concorde, the Apollo project…). We diverted the viaduct from the use it was designed for. It was designed to take a train going at 430 km/h (270 mph) and we put an old-fashioned vehicle on it, a means of locomotion for train pioneers, moving along with difficulty at 3 kph. The comparison of the archival images of those tests, with our slowness, thus helps to play with farce.
Then there are images from personal archives, mainly mine. Andrew’s refer to a motorbike crash he had a few years before the shoot. Mine punctuate the film through kinds of dreams. They’re quite mysterious, they refer to a past that lies at the root of the project. It’s hard to say more about the way they’re used because they play a key role in the film.
As far as egregious changes are concerned, there was one that had to do with my outfit. To start with, I wanted to change clothes every day. That would have been a great mistake. In fact we wouldn’t have had any flexibility in the editing. Then, as I was saying, we abandoned the to-ing and fro-ing . I think they were the main decisions in relation to the realization of the project The film isn’t based on a script, there was a basic picture which we could juggle with. Also, if the film had been shot as planned in 2012/2013, it would have much more themed around the myth of Sisyphus, and it would have been much less narrative in a cinematographic sense. I was finishing up at Le Fresnoy where I produced two installations, and I’m coming from the visual arts. My activity is oriented towards video and performance. By signing on with “L’Image d’après”, the company producing the film, the producers Maud Martin and Annabelle Gangneux pushed me to write more.` So the project grew and became more specific. The film combines documentary, fiction, and performance.
MG: I’m going to tackle a delicate element… as an informed and concerned spectator, I see the acronym EPSM, which appears twice. It will not necessarily be interpreted, but recognizing it gives the film a living momentum, a sort of outlet, a determination and an energy rediscovered in a thoroughly personal challenge. The fact of being a survivor sometimes prompts you to embark on a journey, whatever kind it may be. Andrew Kötting talks readily about a diary of scars, before the images of his hospitalization appear, after his motorbike accident. I also find you quite free in referring to your own cancer, between the sight of your body and the MRI images. Your scars avoid victimization.
JD: We do in fact see EPSM, which stands for Public Mental Health Establishment. This is the new name replacing HP (Psychiatric Hospital). I prefer the original one. Apart from the term, nothing has changed in those places. In the film, we play a lot with those initials HP. In England, it’s a sauce, and, like any good Englishman, Andrew likes it. That pushed a button in my head. It was important to play with those initials and above all in that last nighttime dream where Andrew serves me an English breakfast. Even if you don’t understand EPSM, various details scattered through the film are there to help people understand my stays in a psychiatric hospital. Is the film an outlet, a life impulse…? That’s where I leave it up to the spectator, he must do some work.
To conclude, my career started at the School of Fine Arts in Cambrai. In no time my body was a medium, a place of experimentation. My cancer was of course an ordeal but at the same time it was a continuity in the experiment. I carried on taking photos and making videos which I featured in. I think that I have a kind of remove from the spectacle of my body. I’m trying to offer the viewer something through it.
1.The teaser/trailer can be consulted at: https://vimeo.com/31031851