Mark Rappaport, Bricoleur
Collage is a relatively new word; originating from the French verb coller, and slightly more than a hundred years old, it began in the early 20th century, when modernist painters started experimenting with various techniques that went against the classic narrative structure and format. Cubist artists, such as Braque and Picasso, decided to glue various materials (paper, textile, wood, metal) to canvases, thus turning their paintings into sculptures.
Just a few years later, the Dada movement appropriated the collage as its main form of expression. WWI upended the political and social order to such a degree that it was impossible for the arts to stick to outdated conventions: Kurt Schwitters mastered his Merz as poetry by other means, Duchamp’s readymades disrupted both artistic and expositional practices with their revolutionary gesture, while the surrealists introduced the assemblage and the cadavre exquis as new techniques that entered the third dimension, literally, or played with a certain notion of intellectual montage in which our knowledge of well-established facts and relations clashed with the new context established by the juxtaposition.
In the aftermath of WWII, post-modernism enhanced even more the concept of transcending physicality and its Aristotelian logic. Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol desacralized further the status of the artist and the art itself with their “everyone is an artist” stance, whereas Claude Lévi-Strauss gave currency to the term bricolage in the 1960s, i.e. “make creative and resourceful use of whatever materials are to hand.” Fast forward to contemporary meme culture — propagating thanks to Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram — and you have the poor man’s version of digital collage, consisting almost entirely of readymade materials and tropes.
All those French words haven’t been circulating for nothing, even if Paris has long lost its status as a place for fresh ideas and radical artistic acts. Still, it’s here where I first met Mark Rappaport a couple of years ago, thanks to the (Anglophone) audiovisual criticism gang. Despite his background as an experimental filmmaker, I keep thinking of him as a writer and footage experimenter, yet recently he also mentioned his experience with photomontages. As someone who advocates for a sustainable approach to images, moving or still, I found this very intriguing, especially given the fact that Mark’s use of social media is limited to Facebook. I kept asking questions until he agreed to this interview.
Let’s go back to the beginning of your collage practice. Maybe you can start with some context, like at what period of your life did this happen?
In the early 2000s, I was writing a lot, and I was published in Trafic. There was one piece that I had written that I really wanted to illustrate. It was about the shooting of Ivan the Terrible, Part 1 (1944); Marlene Dietrich, who had played Catherine the Great in The Scarlet Empress ten years earlier, comes to visit the set, and they [Dietrich and Nikokay Cherkasov, who plays Ivan] fall in love with each other. I wanted to illustrate this; I took scenes from Ivan the Terrible and stills of Marlene Dietrich — I wanted to make it look like they were together in the same frame.
I didn’t know how to do this, so I asked a couple of people what they knew about Photoshop, but most of them didn’t know very much, and I kind of learned it the hard way, by myself. I bought a book, and I started doing these collages, Marlene Dietrich smashed up with Cherkasov. Since Trafic doesn’t publish any pictures, I haven’t printed them there, but I was very taken with the process. I started doing a series called “Blind Dates” — Delphine Seyrig is in the same frame with Humphrey Bogart, things like that.
After that, I started doing more complicated collages, like the ones that I gave you. I loved doing it; it was great fun. I did it for about seven years. I think I made over 200 collages, and then I stopped. I said, “I don’t have any more ideas.” Around that time, I started working on video essays; it was so time consuming, there was no more time for me to continue doing collages, so now it’s part of my past. I see the collages as part of my film work, because I was always a pasticheur, a bricoleur — I just put things together. Even in my movies, even in my narrative films, I felt that I was never really a storyteller. I never felt, “Oh, I’ve got this story I gotta tell!” I mean, who are the great storytellers in movies? Raúl Ruiz? I was not one of them; I always felt like I was commenting on certain kinds of things, even when I was making fiction films.
So, in retrospect, this seems like a very natural evolution in the way I work, in things I am interested in. The movies I’m making now, which rely extensively on editing, are a continuation of this sensibility, of that part of me that wants to make things. I think I can fit it into my work in a very convenient way.
It’s interesting that even before this practice, you already focused a lot on actors, characters, and well-known auteurs. Also, your video essays usually revolve around actors, with their on-screen and off-screen personas, even your film on Eisenstein, “Sergei/Sir Gay” (2017), is about him developing this public persona in order to deal with his homosexuality. I was thinking about your latest work as well, “Anna/Nana/Nana/Anna” (Currently unreleased), opening with “we had faces then” and the close-up as “the greatest invention of cinema.” In your collages, you frequently concentrate on faces — how would you explain it, what is this fascination about?
Well, I would disagree. I think they are about the history of the times, in some way about the politics of the times as well, because I don’t think cinema can exist in a vacuum. I would take exception about this thing about the actors, because I’ve made, I think, 17 of these video essays, and I would say only a third of them are about actors, or maybe half.
But the actor provides a very interesting spine for me to talk about other things as well. Like, I’m working on a video essay right now that is not about actors, and it is not coming as easily as when you have this spine of the actor; you can dance away from the actor, you can go off on tangents, and then you can snap back to it when you need to. And actors are one of the most important and fascinating parts of movie history. One talks about Henry Fonda in a way that is different from the way one talks about William Wyler, or George Stevens. Partly because actors are in so many movies, and directors’ films are kind of limited. As an actor, you can be in four-five movies a year, and you can’t really direct four-five movies a year, unless you are Raoul Walsh, of course, but that’s a rarity.
So, in a way, you are collage-ing actors; you take them as cutouts, and you project onto their faces or onto their public persona things you want to say about film history and society. Is this correct?
Yeah, but I wouldn’t sign that in a written form. [Laughs] I don’t think I start from that point of view; it works its way in, in a lot of different ways. I certainly don’t start by saying, “Well, I want to examine the position of the political development in Germany through this actor.” It comes in later, but it’s always there.
I see. And your more elaborate collages, they are really constructed like paintings. You have the leading figures organized in certain dynamics, and then you also have the landscape that is usually surreal, or just a setting for these figures to co-exist together as a meta-space of sorts. What’s your process? When you work on these collages, do you start from the background, or do you start from the silhouettes and then you figure it out?
I can’t even begin to analyze it. It’s like I go into a trance, and I just do it. And then I say, “Oh, I think I need this” or “I think I need that.” There is nothing intellectual about the process; it is purely improvisational, purely instinctual.
Well, maybe that’s not entirely true, as I did several things in a series, for example Stage Fright (circa 2014). Also, one was called Stage Struck (circa 2014). So I knew there had to be a curtain in it somewhere there for the “stage” part; there is always a curtain behind or in front of things happening.
But other than that, I really don’t know… I can’t reconstruct how I put any of these together.
Would you say that you have the collage visualized before you start working on it, or it is happening while you work on it?
No, it is happening.
It is not like you are trying to catch up with an image that you already have in your mind?
No, no. I’m always open to surprises. Actually, I have always surprised myself in the way I was doing it. I think maybe that is why I start, because I start being surprised.
My next question is about Jean-Luc Godard, because one series is dedicated to him. I saw this article in the latest Cineaste magazine, with this really detailed recollection of your path as a filmmaker and writer up until now, and there is this special focus on your experience of Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988–98), which you watched at the Berlin Film Festival some decades ago. The author of this piece, Phillip Lopate, presents it as a turning point. Would you say that your collages are also related to the way Godard works the screen, as a painting in a certain sense, and a collage, too?
Hmm, no, I wouldn’t. But yes, this was a very, very important work in my life, Histoire(s) du cinéma, and I should also add [Dirk Schaefer and] Matthias Müller’s “Home Stories” (1990) — it is a brilliant, brilliant short. It was shortly after seeing Histoire(s) du cinéma and “Home Stories” that I started making Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992). Matthias and Dirk took movies from the 1940s and 1950s, melodramas of women alone at home, frightened, crying. It’s six minutes long and contains the universe of Hollywood melodrama in it. It stands up beautifully almost 30 years later. This was a very important film in my life as well.
And how would you say that those collages fit into your experience with Paris as a place for art nowadays? To what degree do you think that Paris, as a place for connecting different perceptions and sensibilities, inspired you to do this type of art?
Well, I wouldn’t say that New York is exactly the provinces. Paris, for me, was a place to work without financial worry, because I had sold my loft in New York. For the first time in my life, since I was a young adult and had to work, worrying about money was not on my mind 24 hours a day, even while I was sleeping.
When I was making movies, it was a constant, constant battle with paying the rent, paying my bills, stealing from this project for the other project, and getting grants for films that couldn’t get made, because I never had enough money to make them. It was just one financial catastrophe after another, from the time when I was 25 to the time when I moved to Paris.
Which was when exactly?
Fifteen years ago, in 2005.
The thing about writing and doing the collages is having a certain air of freedom around me. Not to think that I was doing this or that, so I can earn money. I guess I was a dilettante rich person. [Laughs]
Since you’ve been here, have you tried any networking opportunities in order to give these collages more exposure, in an artsy environment, let’s say? Do you see their place in a gallery? Or are they supposed to accompany your moving-image oeuvre at a retrospective?
I’m open to any kind of suggestion of showing my collages with film screenings, but it just hasn’t presented itself as an opportunity yet.
I did have a show in 2016, and not much happened. It wasn’t a big show, and it certainly wasn’t publicized; it wasn’t at a gallery that has those kinds of resources.
Was it here in Paris?
Yes. It was at Re:Voir; it is basically a film-video distribution center. I might have another show there later this year, but I haven’t pursued it very wholeheartedly. I cannot be very aggressive getting my work out. I’d rather continue doing work than spending time writing, submitting applications, trying to make connections, and so on.
How about social media? A lot is happening there, and I don’t just mean the basic meme culture, where you have ready-made material, and you project certain tropes onto it. Rather, I’m talking about this interest in visualizing things in an impromptu way, often without words, in a way that makes the work travel across borders and cultures. Would you say that social media inspires you to follow up on another level with your collages?
I must admit, I am a very late responder to social media. I’m not quite sure how it works. I mean, you’re interested in things I’ve never even heard of. My idea of social media is very, very limited. It’s like Facebook and the Internet, and that’s kind of it. I don’t really know how to use or exploit social media to my advantage. I’m not that crazy about putting my work out there in a social-media setting, in a sense that it is very easy to copy it and sell it, and have other people do whatever they like with it.
When I started making videos again, in 2014, I kind of left the world of collages behind me. I do collages in the videos that I make, rather than try to get them shown publicly.
When I first started doing them, I was actually persuaded that Paris was a small town, and I took my portfolio, and I went to galleries, like I was some hick from Georgia coming to New York, thinking I could get a gallery that way. It was absolutely absurd. Of course, everybody said, “Oh, sorry, we are filled up, we don’t look at portfolios,” you know, all that blablabla. It kind of turned me off. I don’t really know how artists deal with galleries; I certainly don’t have that back[bone].
I did not pursue that at all. Galleries that I did know about, and I had introductions to, you could never speak to anyone, or show them your work. So I abandoned that aspect of it completely.
Thinking of your video essays that expand this collage aesthetic — they usually have problems due to copyrights, because you tend to use footage that has not been authorized. In a collage, you probably don’t have this problem, because it is a different medium, one that gives you more freedom, while also being more mobile.
When I had a show in New York, someone I knew came over and said to me: “What do you do about the rights of those things?” I said, “fuck ’em.” I don’t even think about it. There are always people who are going to worry about the rights, and I never worry about the rights.
Even when I was making films in the 1970s, someone asked me at a screening, “Well, what about the rights for the music?” I said, “What rights for the music?” I’ve always been very nonchalant about it, and it’s never come back to haunt me, or it hasn’t so far. Especially now, the gates are wide open, seems to me, like, nobody really cares. Everybody is doing video essays, and it is all under the radar.
Top image: Pour JLG I (2011)
Mark Rappaport lives and works in Paris.