Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #113: "Filmmaker Steve McQueen to Berkeley students: ’Take a risk.’”
Shannon Jackson: Alright. People are still entering the Zoom room, but it seems important to get started. We have an incredible afternoon ahead or evening if you’re an Amsterdam. Hello, my name is Shannon Jackson. I’m associate vice chancellor for the arts and design here at UC Berkeley. And it’s a privilege to welcome you to another iteration of A+D Thursdays here on Tuesday, March 30. Yes. We’ve added an extra event in order to accommodate our acclaimed speaker for today. For those of you who do not routinely tune into us, I’ll tell you that this is a lecture series that sits inside a large public course created by my office in order to expose students to a range of art forms across literature, film, art, performance, design and also that we are open to the public once a week. This particular series, this lecture series, and the course are devoted to the theme of time-based media art.
And we get to do that. Thanks to a generous donation from the Kramlich Art Foundation founded by Cal alum, Pamela Kramlich, and her husband, Dick Kramlich. The Kramlich Arts Foundation is devoted to education, research and public programming in the field of time-based media art. And we on all of you at Berkeley and beyond are indebted to their incredible generosity in making this happen. This is a course that as I said, opens weekly and already we’ve had a range of stellar artists and curators, including luminaries, such as Isaac Julian, Richard Moss, Adrian Edwards, Katherine Wood, as well as William Kentridge coming up on Thursday this week, we have the renowned video artist Shirin Neshat also a Cal alum. It is sort of alumni week this week, actually today.
However, I have the extraordinary privilege of welcoming an artist whose rigor and delicacy and commitment and inventiveness seemed to know no bounds, aesthetically as well as politically, as I assume, all of you know, McQueen is a renowned film director and screenwriter who has received justifiable acclaim for a number of future films, including Hunger, Shame and Widows, including awards, such as the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
And of course, quite spectacularly, his 2013 film, 12 Years a Slave, excavated the dialectics of freedom and slavery in the United States with a bracing and breathtaking arrangement of image, narrative, and sound justifiably winning a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, an Academy Award for best picture. McQueen also has turned to television and most recently with a stunning small acts series. Adjacent to this blockbuster career in film and in television, he also enjoys a blockbuster career in the art world.
Having created an array of video art pieces that also arrange image, narrative and sound to breathtaking of that effect, whether in pieces like Western Deep or Caribs’ Leap / Western Deep or Static, or many, many more, McQueen is often asking viewers to reckon with the fraught legacies of colonialism slavery and the other extractive economies that imperil the health and social life of our planet. The artistic range of his practice and his sociopolitical themes couldn’t be more apt for our course, for our series and for UC Berkeley, especially as UC Berkeley reckons with its own fraught political legacies, including the fact that our campus is cited on the unceded and ancestral land of the Ohlone Tribe.
And in reckoning with our relationship to that history, the institution here itself, your host institution is also undergoing unnecessary its belated process of institutional political reflection and realignment. When I think about that process and alongside that process, we might take inspiration.
It seems to me, from the effects that McQueen says, he often seeks in his art practice a pursuit that quote "wants to put the public in a situation where everyone is acutely sensitive to themselves, to their body, to their respiration, alongside of course their sociohistorical position,” helping us to situate his practice in conversation today.
I’m also thrilled to be able to welcome two incredible colleagues, Clara Kim and Rizvana Bradley. Kim is The Daskalopoulos Senior Curator at the Tate Modern in London. She is known for her international range for her attention to form and for her incredible research practice as a curator, since she is also a Cal alum, we’d like to think that she started to learn some of those skills during her time at UC Berkeley. And it is just too fitting for all of us that one of her most recent curatorial projects was the recent retrospective of Steve McQueen.
Meanwhile, Rizvana Bradley is our brand new colleague at UC Berkeley. Somebody who also has scholarly accolades now already for her research in African American cultural production, across poetry, art, film, and performance, as well as excavations of those forms in the wider Black diaspora.
It is a thrill to welcome. You responded to Berkeley, I’ll be at online. This is your welcome from me with an invitation to join the dialogue. So, it’s a thrill to launch this conversation with the ever-vigilant support of my A+D team. I’d like to ask everyone to help me by welcoming Steve with a warm muted, welcome to UC Berkeley. Alright, we’ll have Steve.
Steve McQueen: Hello, How are you?
Shannon Jackson: Welcome. How are you? Really appreciate, you staying up and giving over your evening to us and Clara, thank you for highlighting your screen as well. So, as I mentioned in my introduction, this is a series that is located in a broader cross-disciplinary art course, and Steve’s practice across a range of forums. Just couldn’t be more appropriate for what we’re, what we’ve been studying. And we’ll continue to study around the semester and Clara, you have most recently been at the helm in putting together one of the most incredible curatorial projects around the long arc of Steve’s work. So I wonder if the two of you could start us off by telling us about that exhibition, perhaps walking us through the exhibition and letting Steve tell us more about his, the central preoccupations of his practice. And I’ll unhighlight my screen to let you come forward. Thank you, Clara.
Steve McQueen: Well, thank you for such a wonderful introduction its very kind. Thank you.
Clara Kim: Thank you. Yes. Thanks as well to Shannon and to all at UC Berkeley for the invitation. And I’m quite pleased to be here today. Not only because Cal is my Alma mater and where I wanted, where I decided to pursue our history as a career path, but because I get to talk with Steve and it’s a real, real great pleasure to see Steve again and to reminisce a little bit about our recent exhibition that was at take modern. It opened in February, Steve. It seems like ages ago when it opened, but it was pre pandemic times, February back when we were all very innocent and other world completely.
So, I thought that, I mean, Shannon so beautifully gave an introduction to your work, but I thought that we might do this kind of virtual walkthrough, through the exhibition itself, because it’s so important. And, and I know this is so important to you, Steve is the way one experiences the encounter with the work you know, that kind of bodily dimension to experiencing it physically and sincerely. So we wanted to kind of start with that and open with that, but also show this image because the exhibition was not just in the galleries themselves, but it actually really started with this outdoor screen, which is on channel of Caribs’ Leap. Do you want to talk about that?
Steve McQueen: Yeah, it was very important for me again, how you enter an exhibition, how you are introduced to an exhibition you know, your first point of contact. And for me, the River Thames is the start is the source. You know, it’s the source that goes out into the further and wider empire. The British empire, it’s the source one can think about the Conrad’s sort of a darkness and brings in the end is stationed in the Thames. And this whole idea of this river flowing and what it was for me, it was the confrontation for me, all of that source of the source. And in some ways, this sort of, end result at this moment with the evidence of a place like Grenada, a place that was clinical colonized by the British while the French first and then the British. And in fact it was, it was, it was, it was a place where the RX, the naked people, and then the Caribs came over and then off the Caribs, it was the French after the French, the African, British and then African.
So, the West Indies, this is a very interesting place in the world where, the whole idea of populations, different kinds of populations living on top of each other occurred, cultures, where sort of things are handed down from each individual culture. So at the beginning of this exhibition, for me, I had to do the flow, had to do with movement, had to do with a certain kind of, can I say a certain kind of reflection of what had happened at that time, at the outset of that river. I mean, again, you can go back to Roman times and you go back to all that Del and Atlas as a city what you do is it with the city and the river the settlement and the settlement that happened in Grenada and the sort of relics of what is there now, in some ways it’s an island obviously, but it’s surrounded by water again.
And it seems like it’s a sort of, it feels like it’s on pause because agriculture is gone, certain kinds of industries have gone in order is, is that one has to explain themselves in order to bring in toward tourism. So, it’s sort of one of those things, which I wanted to bring back as evidence or what has it has been done to the source. So, that was the idea, originally the whole idea, of entering the exhibition.
And then of course you enter it by crossing the Thames at this point from simple cathedral to this spot. And again, there’s lots of images in, and this is the Caribs leap. If you go, if you even go back one, one other image, there’s a lady with a dog, and it’s just, it was just that whole idea of it, this whole idea of almost like being shipwrecked in a way, not, not being able to leave and being surrounded by water. So I want to go to the source of that, which was the river Thames.
Clara Kim: Steven, it was also quite a personal connection to you and that is it your father, who’s from Grenada.
Steve McQueen: Oh yeah. My family and my mother from Trinidad in Grenada. Yeah.
Clara Kim: Yeah. I think that’s really evocative. And I mean, in a way, the exhibition, which wasn’t a retrospective, because it was, we didn’t go back to your work, to your single channel, your early works like Bear, but we decided to start in 1999, kind of where roughly where your last kind of major survey exhibition at ICA kind of ended, we kind of want to do pick up on that. Yeah. As a kind of homecoming as well for you gave your ties here.
So, when one enters the exhibition, I mean, I think it’s, you know, it’s so important how you, as you said, that movement, I mean, I think about it as a kind of choreography, how you move through the space and how these works, then how one encounters, these words. So, what you do is, you go upstairs to the second level of the Blavatnik building and you enter through a light lock kind of entrance. And then, what you’re confronted with is this kind of open plaza, locked space in which you encounter Steve’s very important work Static, 2009. I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about that? We broke the rules a little bit because usually you would have one work in a focus installed in a focus way in one room, but we, we actually put the two together and there was a nice conversation that was happening.
Steve McQueen: Yeah. I don’t, I mean, I think often people see my work as one or two. So, the fact that the first few times they’ve been in groups. I’ve even been in a show at the Shalonda in Basel, there were, it was works that were sort of speaking to each other. Absolutely, Because I don’t like the idea of putting things in boxes. It becomes sort of, you don’t even get a perspective of yourself. You’re sitting in the dark looking at a bright screen. So, the whole idea of you, and in fact, interestingly enough, the whole idea of the screen being bigger than you, that perspective, and also having this kind of downloads anyway, the whole idea of walking into the space and having static. This is the image of the Statue of Liberty, which will happen as I was in the helicopter for a little while, but it was actually, it was actually 19…
It was the year that Statue of Liberty was open again after the 9/11 incidents. And the fact that I wanted to sort of surf and navigate this statue, I wanted to sort of, even in a way, trying to take, trying to, in some ways, take it off. What’s the word I’m looking for, putting on, put it on tilter by surfing and navigating it, like almost like a fly or something. So the whole idea of that, the whole exhibition, this is the pivot of the whole exhibition. The whole expression is pivoting on this work. Everything is circumnavigating this work, everything as the helicopter is moving around it, circumnavigating it. So everything is spinning around this and trying to actually try to put it off kilter in a way liberty, whatever that is, the symbol of liberty.
Clara Kim: Yeah. I mean, definitely, there’s a sense of kind of disorientation, which is quite pronounced when you enter this space and you recognize what’s on the image, what’s on the screen. But your way of seeing it is completely off-kilter, as I just said. It’s a sense of disorientation because the camera is moving, you shot it in the helicopter and the camera is moving around the statue.
Steve McQueen: Look, look, look again. It’s almost like being dizzy and your perspective has changed. You’re examining it, you’re looking at it. You’re trying to find other things about it. You’re seeing the birds nest in, in her armpit. You’re seeing all of these things and again, within the context of liberty within the context of the stability of it and the fragility of it within the context of the show. Yeah.
Clara Kim: There is also something about, I think this is kind of the first instance in which the camera, as a kind of apparatus really dictates what you’re seeing and how you’re seeing it. And I think one of the things that’s also quite impactful as you, as you watch Static is not only the sense of disorientation, but the sound elements, Steve, is so important to as well, right. Because what you’re hearing is just…
Steve McQueen: Yes, yes. You’re hearing what you’re hearing is as, as it’s being moved around is a helicopter sort of, sort of coming in and out of one sort of air shot. So, you’re hearing it, it’s loud and it’s coming around and it’s sort of swooping round, and then it comes in again and whatnot. So, there are moments of silence and the moments of the wind, just sort of as if he was sort of a hang-gliding around it.
So you’re hearing the sweeping of the wind, and then you sort of hear a helicopter kind of charge up again. So it’s that the fact of it’s being suspended and being motivated. The suspended and being meant to be, yes, because you’re sort of being, you are making, you have a choice. You have a possibility within that situation, you know, you’re not just… you know, when we are carried along, we feel that we have no, as I say, we have no sort of possibility within it to change or to sort of manipulate, sort of redirect a certain situation. But sometimes now, and then there’s an opening.
Clara Kim: So, then if we can move on, you have these two works playing simultaneously. And then, as you enter the gallery space, you encounter a series of different projection rooms, installations. And the first one is Western Deep. And I think this work is also, I mean, it’s formative. This was a commission and you show this first at Documenta back in 2002. But I think here, what’s interesting, again, similar to Static is the way that you enter the room and you might hear something before you see something and this constable, this position of the viewer kind of actively searching for the image, trying to get a sense of what’s happening, I think is quite important to this work.
Steve McQueen: This is like different because basically there’s a beginning and end, so there’s a time. So, you can like you go in at the beginning and you leave at any time. You want to, you can start at the end or whatever, but you can never go in at the beginning because at the beginning is the beginning, that’d be can leave anytime after that. So, there’s a beginning end of this. So, when you’re sitting there, obviously you’re occupied in front of the sound because it starts, and then what starts is this: the sound of that elevator, basically. Western Deep is one of the deepest mines in the world. It’s just, it’s like two-and-a-half kilometers on the ground. And it’s about the descent into this mind by elevator, by train, by walking, by elevator.
Again, of course, the center has been stagnating a lot for not to collapse. So, it basically takes you out for hours to get to the face of the mining. And there are 5,000 men underground at one time, and then they rotate them. And during t’he part in there, they kept them down there as long as they could. I think it’s more than a 12-hour shift. And this particular room, that one, the image you’re seeing is an image that - it’s a heated room basically to assimilate the heat underground, extremely hot. I forgot the temperature now, actually.
And the red lights on the wall indicate when to go up. I went to go down and it just gives me the dances, the space for me was I just, I mean, I remember like I showed it for the first time in Documenta, in Kassel in 2002. I just want the whole idea of having a beginning. And an actual beginning often, the pieces where I, people come in when they want them to experience it, almost like sculpture. But for me, this had a beginning. I mean, you can leave at any time and obviously it had an end. So, it was very important to sort of create a similar kind of a cinema space in here, just to sort of focus on this thing in the dark.
Clara Kim: It was also quite important what you shot at. And I think it’s so fascinating that you shot it in Super 8. Can you talk a little bit about the choice of doing that?
Steve McQueen: Literally, it was functionality and grain. The function that may mean when you’re in a 45-degree stoop, which you sort of, so 80 centimeters high, and you’re cooling down your stomach and you can’t take big chunky cameras with you. And at that time I wanted to shoot on film. The texture was very important to catch the impressionistic nature and the grain, I thought, really added value because there’s so much dust underneath there. And I wanted to sort of translate that onto the screen to get at least almost like sticking onto the viewer. So, it was about mobility. It was about the image really, it was a very practical way of bringing the image. So, it was a set. Everything made sense.
Clara Kim: I never asked you this, but did you, the moment that you were down there shooting did you know exactly, did you plot out exactly what you were going to shoot or was there an element of kind of spontaneity?
Steve McQueen: Totally spontaneity, because I read up about it. I did a lot of reading and it was expedition in a way, but because in one way you won’t have to sort of, again, I always think you have to be ready. The best advice I ever got, as far as using a camera, was to always have it on your side, be prepared. It’s like, if you’re not ready yet, you’ll never be ready. But, I think I was mainly interested in the whole idea of this… The situation of capital and mineral. You know what I mean? And depth. Especially in this place. So, that was it. So, whatever I had was coming at me, I was ready for it. Absolutely.
Clara Kim: It reminds me of while we were doing research for the catalog, it was really great to go back to some of your early exhibitions. And I read somewhere that as a student… When you were an art student at Goldsmiths, you would carry around a camera. And I loved what you said - that you, before you shot it, because it was so expensive to record and develop, that you would almost edit in your head before you shot. Is that something still that stays with you? That way of working?
Steve McQueen: Yes. Even in the last second because it’s craft. And also, I’m a British filmmaker. So, we know how to stretch a pound, you know what I mean? We don’t have an awful lot of money. So, it’s all about how you do things. And again, it’s craft. There are choices on what you do. But again, this is about bringing oneself into a situation. How do you translate a situation? How do you interpret a situation? How do you learn from a situation? How do you curate in this situation? It’s not about planning and preparing and then dismiss often. I’m not interested in illustrating. I’m interested in something completely different. And you’ll ask, "What is that?” And I’ll say, "I see it when I see it.” You recognize it immediately when you see it. And that’s about choices.
Clara Kim: So, this is the other part of Western Deep. Is a two part work…
Steve McQueen: Western Deep/Caribs’ Leap.
Clara Kim: Exactly. Western Deep/Caribs’ Leap. You showed it together, of course, in Documenta, but here we put one channel - the footage of Grenada over the course of the day. This is a cycle of a day on the facade of the building on the LED screen. And then the other part of Caribs’ Leap, which is related to the Grenada story, was hanging on the screen here, above people’s heads. Do want to talk a little bit about that?
Steve McQueen: Absolutely. I mean, again… So, the piece Western Deep/Caribs’ Leap, they’re brothers and sisters such that they’re together. They’re twins. And Caribs’ Leap is the place where my mother comes from in the North of Grenada, which is called Sauteurs. The French called it Leapers, which means, obviously, Sauteurs, Leapers. And what it was… This part of the country, the Northern part of the country, was where the last remaining Caribs in 1654, rather than returning to the French, jumped off this cliff and into the rocks below, into the rocks and the sea below. So, it’s this power of the island is marked by this moment. And the French, of course, after that, put a Catholic church to mark the spot.
And it’s just… it’s something which haunts. And that’s all this stuff that you see on the outside of the building. The footage that you just saw on the outside building is from that part of Grenada, Sauteurs. So, that’s the other part of Caribs’ Leap - the footage that you saw outside of the building. So, the space was always marked by this, by the ghosts of the past. Not ghosts, I don’t like the word ghosts. The spirit of the past. I don’t even know what another word is. You can smell it and it, sort of, infiltrates that environment. And again, bringing it back… Bringing part of that back to the Thames, again, to the source or one of the sources, was very important to me.
Clara Kim: So, in one part of the gallery, we had two film projections. There’s Cold Breath here from 1999, which you see projected on that sidewall. And then Charlotte from 2004. And we decided to install this, Steve, in a kind of open space. And I think these two works do something quite different from the others.
Steve McQueen: I mean, again, I just litigate. I’ve always shown not all the works, but it has to show, you have to have relationships. Otherwise, you just get black boxes, which is… there’s no perspective. It’s a massive glowing thing in the dark. And it’s of no interest to anyone. You might’ve guessed that. It’s about flow. It’s about perspective. It’s about relationships. And again, the shift for me is like hanging paintings. It’s like, when you hang a show again, you go from one image to the next it’s very important. And the flow of it, the constants. The constant is very important. And also for me, what’s interesting about exhibitions, very important for me at an exhibition, there’s one entrance and there’s one exit.
You walk in, you go to wherever you need to go in the exhibition, but then you could go back on yourself. You could revisit, reinvestigate. Not just in and out into the gift shop. No, it has to be one entrance and one exit. Very, very important. Anyway, but yeah, these two works, they have… and again, both of them are on 16-millimeter.
Clara Kim: Do you want to talk a little bit about the tactility of it? The sense of touch. Because, I think, in both cases, in different ways, they point to the point to that - the sensorial within an image. And I wonder what you…
Steve McQueen: I’m interested in what you got to say really.
Clara Kim: Yeah. I mean, for me, it’s… What is happening in Charlotte is again… there’s a, kind of, stillness to this image in which you see the frame of the camera as a closeup of Charlotte Rampling’s eye. And then it’s your finger, Steve that’s touching her eyes. And I mean, to me, it makes that connection between, kind of, tactility and the sensorial. It collapses that with what you see, what is being seen. And for me, these two works do that in different ways, and I wonder what you…
Steve McQueen: Look, I had no idea. I spoke to her on the phone, we met, we talked. I said, "I have an idea.” I didn’t know what I was going to do for a shoot. I had no idea that I would just go for her eye. I had no idea. It was never set up. And again, it was just one of those things which occurred. And there was a focus, there was a certain kind of, if you will, a dance or whatever it was. I don’t know. And it occurred, it happened. You don’t bring up your arm and say, "Excuse me. Can I put my finger in your eye?” That doesn’t happen. But it occurred. The lens and the finger. I don’t know.
Clara Kim: Did she know what you were going to do?
Steve McQueen: No.
Clara Kim: Was she aware?
Steve McQueen: No, she wasn’t. And again, certain things I don’t talk about really. But again, it’s the sensory, as you said, the eye. The, sort of, you looking at it. The eye of the projector. Her eye. The finger. The invasion in a way. But at the same time this eye is, it’s the only part of the body in some ways which is, sort of, it’s almost like an open wound. Which is, sort of. It’s the only thing that, which we could see from inside of our bodies, in a way. On the outside, I mean, our mouths, of course. But this sensory thing, I just wanted to touch it. I wish I could give you more. Which, I will. In fact, I won’t. Certain things I just keep to myself.
Again, I feel that an artwork is… one can talk about this and that and the other and the obvious. But the whole idea of interpretation or even investigation or understanding, it’s difficult. But also, you know when it’s right. Like I said, you know when it’s right. I had no idea what I was going to do. None, at all, whatsoever.
Clara Kim: So, moving on. There was in one side of the gallery, a series of-
Steve McQueen: Yes.
Clara Kim: Black box spaces. And I think it’s really interesting, particularly in the interview you talk about this. The interview that you do with Hamza Walker for the catalog. And you talk about these works: 7th November, Girls, Tricky and then Ashes. One encounters these three rooms, kind of, in succession. And I thought you said something really interesting about them: that all three works feature Black men, they’re isolated, they’re all reflections but they’re all active, even if they look inactive. Active in their minds, retelling a story to project, verbalize to reflect and to be reflected on. And I think there’s a lot in there in what you said. And I wonder if you can talk about these three works together.
Steve McQueen: All four are in states of meditation in one way or the other. Again, you have Tricky, who’s in the studio. Who’s gone somewhere. He has to go somewhere to get somewhere. You’ve got 7th of November Marcus, reciting. And in fact, you can say all of it is about memory. Isn’t it?
What is interesting for me about Illuminer… That monitor… And again, I had no idea. I was on the bed, I put the TV on and all of a sudden I became the subject. The violence from the TV monitor because what this work is about is what’s on the TV, rather. What’s it about.
There was a documentary about special forces in Afghanistan. And, somehow, that violence reflected me. Made me visible. Literally, the TV made me visible. I was being made visible by violence. And it was at that moment where I just, sort of, realized that this is, it’s almost like a, you can say a painting. It’s almost like a painting. No, I can’t, that’s too soft. But it’s almost like something else. I don’t know what. A painting is an easy thing to say. But it somehow, the violence from that monitor, the violence from that TV coming through made me visible, made me present. Made me, sort of, there.
And it was just one of those things which, sort of, occurred. And it was just magical in a way. And truthful. I was being visualized. I was being realized by violence with that camera. That technique of this digital camera fighting to make sense of the light reflected on me from the monitor, from the TV. Anyway, going on a bit.
What’s the next one? And then I’ve got again, of course, Marcus 7th November. Which, is my cousin. We could talk about that one.
Clara Kim: Do you want to talk about Ashes- I think Ashes is a nice one.
Steve McQueen: This is a very strange one, in fact. Because, there’s only one man. There’s three men on that boat and there’s only one man who’s alive now and that’s me. So, Robbie, who shot it is dead. Ashes is dead.
And what happened was… Ashes was this guy. He was around at Sauteurs. He was a fisherman. He was a very good fisherman. He would dive for lobsters. He caught my eye and he was someone I just wanted to, sort of, shoot. Let’s get him out on the boat. "Robbie, let’s get him on the boat. And I then shoot him.” There’s something about this guy.
So, we went out on a boat with him and we shot him. And he was charming. He was an extraordinary, beautiful man. Very dark skin. Blonde locks. I think at the time was he 26? I can remember how old he was. 26 at the time? Beautiful, virile, gorgeous man moving in the boat to this endless horizon. The holiday of endless possibilities.
And we shot him and I didn’t use the footage. All the footage I shot at that time was for Caribs’ Leap. But I had the footage, I didn’t use it. I put it away. Little did I know it was in, I think it was six weeks after he shot him, I think less. I don’t know. He was murdered. And I found out about that. I think I found out about that maybe four or five years afterwards.
And then, I sort of, wanted to memorialize him in a way. I wanted to, sort of, make his name. Well, it was just about the whole idea of… I mean, he was buried in a pauper’s grave. Because again, he wasn’t affiliated to any church. So, he was buried in a pauper’s grave. Basically, a mound of dirt. And for me, he deserved better. He was this beautiful man full of life and it’s a story that we’re all familiar with as far as Black men are concerned. And I just wanted people to remember him for a few more years yet. So, that’s why he wanted to make a grave for him. And you can read about it in the catalog.
Clara Kim: So, can we touch upon End Credits because as one moves through the space, you would conclude your walk around the gallery with this work, End Credits.
Steve McQueen: Yeah, I think it’s very difficult for me to talk right now. It also, George Floyd’s trial starts. Again, these are works that have been… Again, it’s a narrative. Some unfortunate narrative that just goes on and on and on and on. So, I find it very difficult to talk about, often, in that case.
Clara Kim: And then lastly, maybe we can talk a bit about Year 3, which is the project that you had at Tate Britain.
Steve McQueen: Possibilities. Let’s talk about possibilities. Yes, absolutely.
Clara Kim: Extraordinary work that you’ve. That’s been germinating. An idea that you’ve had while back many years ago that my colleague Clarrie Wallis at Tate Britain worked with you in realizing. Can you talk a little bit just about that in this extraordinary portrait of London?
Steve McQueen: Well, I first went to the Tate Modern, I think maybe when I was 8 years old. We were bused into the museum. And that was the first I actually felt at home, in a way. The first time I saw the possibilities within a subject which I thought could relate to me. What I meant by that was that art was important. Look, they put pictures and drawings on the walls of museums and they’re seen as important. And I was good at drawing. So, that was my way into education because I’m dyslexic. So, what happened was, how my whole trajectory to education came through art , history of art, geography, history, maths. All that kind of stuff came through art. So, what’s interesting for me in a way, is London and the idea of London.
And I say an idea, because London is always fluctuating all the time, as far as people and cultures and with music. I mean, I think, I don’t know anywhere else in the world that has the sort of richness of London, culturally, as far as music is concerned. And this comes from influence from all around the world.
And I suppose what I was interested in all these photographs was possibilities and futures. And that was it, really. And you know, also, this is the only place, I thought at that time, where you could see the future of London. These are photographed 3,000 schools. 3,200 schools in London, I think we got, at the end of the day, over 70% of schools participated in London. So, the demographic is there for all to see.
And what was interesting about it was the complexities and the multitudes of different people from all over the world in these schools. I mean, it was London. It was just beautiful to look at. I think there was some people were scared, of course, but if you wanted to know, if you wanted to see the future, there it was on a wall. You could actually, this is one of the places where you could actually see the future.
Clara Kim: Steve, can you say a bit about why that age group? Because, you were quite specific about it.
Steve McQueen: Well, one could talk about there was a documentary called Seven Up! Because this is Year 3, which is around the 7-year-old. But for me it was multitude because also I was looking at my own son and my daughter and stuff like that. It’s that moment of limbo. It’s a moment where things are just forming or just before they form, in fact. When you’re looking at your classmates and you’re saying, "Okay, he’s gay or she’s white or he’s Black or he’s Asian.” Just before that all, just before all those things.
All those things are, at that moment, not so prevalent. But just after things change, it’s this moment of limbo, which way will they go? My experience at school was terrible. It was terrible. It was after this moment, that’s when things started to change, after this moment. And the, sort of, the outside world in. You see the because of the conformative uniform or non-uniform. Everything started to be judged. Everything started to be questioned.
And that was just that moment before all of that. So, this is the moment where there were the possibilities of so many wonderful things happening. I mean, right now we know we could be looking at the next prime minister in a few decades time. We could be looking at anything. A scientist. We could be looking at whatever. It was about that moment, really, for me. It was about the possibilities. I wanted to do this because of possibilities. Because, everything around me at that moment seemed it’s all about the future. And this was the future.
Clara Kim: Yes. It was such an extraordinary project in all of its, kind of, ambition. Using quite a ubiquitous, kind of, format of a classroom photograph. What was so great about it, Steve, it was the way people responded to it. Was the way in which the kids were bused in. And this encounter with their image in the space of Tate Britain. That was something quite magical, them seeing themselves. Their flashcards on the wall in the museum.
Steve McQueen: You’re quite right. And also, the form. So, basically, there’s an equality within the form. Yeah.
Clara Kim: Yes.
Steve McQueen: And within that equality, there’s individuals in there. Do we have an image? A large one. We don’t have a large one? That’s just one for example.
Clara Kim: No. I don’t. Sorry.
Steve McQueen: Okay, nevermind. Okay, well again, If you could pick out individuals in the mass. So, what we did we actually, we had an educational program, as well. So, we were going to bus in all schools. We’d got pretty far down the line before Corona took over. So, we bused in the schools, we had an educational program in the museum. We bused in all these school kids. It was a revolution. I don’t use the word lightly.
This was a revolution because we don’t do that anymore. We don’t have to bring kids to museums. So, the fact that these kids were in the exhibition, they were bringing their parents afterwards. Their grandparents wanted to come because they were at the Tate Britain. So, all these people who do not go to museums were in the museums. I mean, every day it was wrapped. It was amazing. It was a real revolution because people were seeing themselves in a place of importance for the first time. They were looking at themselves and thinking, "Hey. I fit in here. I am here. I am important.” And I think that for me, was my, sort of, Trojan horse.
Clara Kim: Thank you, Steve. Yeah, it was such an incredible work. And I think the legacy of this project is going to live on for a long time for all of us and people in London.
Steve McQueen: It’s wonderful. It was wonderful having cab drivers, having a tall chat with you and say, "Oh yeah, my niece…” And not knowing who I was. It was just wonderful that people having a conversation about art in a way where they were included. It’s very important and they owned it.
Clara Kim: So, we’re going to shift gears a little bit. We’re a little over time. But, I know Shannon and Rizvana wanted to speak to you about the film works. So, we can transition to that. Rizvana can I…’ I can’t find this on the screen.
Rizvana Bradley: And if you don’t mind, Clara, perhaps you could share those last two images?
Steve McQueen: Oh good.
Clara Kim: Wonderful.
Rizvana Bradley: Hi, it’s a thrill to be in conversation with you alongside my colleagues. And thank you to Shannon, as well as Clara, for putting together this beautiful PowerPoint and walking us through some of these earlier works. Actually, Western Deep and Gravesend, in particular, I think they’re five years apart. I really have a sort of renewed interest in these works in particular, because I think they’re again, provoking questions about the very unequal geographies of labor and risk that have maybe been brought home more forcefully in Europe and the West during the pandemic.
And so, to hear you speak about these works, I was just thinking about how all of the globalized things we depend on and commodities we depend on, are produced by the people we don’t have to see. And so, I was really thinking about how both of these works take up among other questions, the revelation and concealment of labor and how some of these earlier works are really performing a sort of critique of the transparency of a globalized world.
But I wanted to sort of transition to Small Acts because I think I recall in an interview, I think this past October, you were describing the historical period engaged by small acts, as I think as you put it, a golden age of resistance. And part of what I’m interested in here is I guess this is a question of the relationship between politics and aesthetics and culture.
I guess I’m really interested in, for those who may not know that the title of this anthology, Small Axe references the 1973 song by Bob Marley and the Wailers, but what I’m really interested in is the sort of productive slippage between Small Axe, A-X-E, and small acts, A-C-T-S. And I’m wondering how you think about the idea of politics enacted on a smaller scale? Politics, quite literally, as a gathering of small acts, small cultural acts that produce a really profound social transformations.
Steve McQueen: Oh, it’s exactly what I was talking about as far as studying is concerned. The actual motivation and how even the smallest act of acknowledgement could have a huge ripple effect, to not turn the blind eye, to call people out. These are huge acts. One might say they’re small or petty, or don’t bother. Bother, because it will change so many things down the road. It’s very important.
Again, these small acts, as you said, and again, as far as size is concerned or whatever, it’s not about size. It’s about how, if you do it, I do it, he does it, she does it, we all do it, they do it, things change, that’s it. And then if there’s anytime we need that to happen, it’s now. This is one of the most scariest times ever, as far as being a human being in this world. The right fascists, it’s real.
So, if someone says something which is not right, then you correct them. If someone does something wrong, then you say, "These are the things that actually make things happen,” because if you let things slide, down the road, something will happen for sure. And I think in my experience as a young Black man growing up in London, and the Black Parents Association and what they did to improve my life and changed the whole landscape of education.
These were these mothers and fathers and educators who came from West Indies, who changed British politics, these parents. We had these schools which were called educationally subnormal schools, and a large proportion of those schools were filled with West Indian Black children, Black Caribbean, West Indian, and African children, disproportionately. And it was because of those parents and their fight, and their Saturday schools and their organization, that, that whole thing was turned right around.
And again, there’s a film, Education, it’s a series. And I’ve put myself as just taking an aspect of myself, but put it in an environment which would have happened to me if that sort of narrative of sending these children to this sort of place, which was called educationally subnormal schools, if it wasn’t changed by these people, that would have been my path. So, the only reason I’m standing here talking to you is because of people taking a stand and never give up in that sense, yeah.
Rizvana Bradley: Yeah. I think part of what is so fascinating about your description of particularly that episode of the anthology Education is just how relevant culture is to making politics and making transformative politics happen. And I really appreciated the sort of texture of every scene, that is brought to every scene. I think you mentioned in your conversation with Clara a few moments ago, about the sort of musical diversity of London, the sort of dynamic way in which I spent some time growing up in London and I can sort of feel that when I’m watching the series, too.
Steve McQueen: There were sound systems all over, there were sound systems all over London. All over London there were sound systems, so it was just amazing as far as the base. It’s all about the base. It’s all about the base. Yeah.
Rizvana Bradley: Yeah. It’s so interesting to hear you talk about the base and the sort of sonic, the way the sort of sound makes an atmosphere or constructs the…
Steve McQueen: Absolutely. You get things like in Lovers Rock when we get into the dub, and we could talk about, again, the film was based on my aunt, but it was actually designed around the DJ, the selector. It was all about his tracks into the movie, the narratives were designed around that. So, when I was looking for a dub track, I found Kunta Kinte, it was like a dog whistle going off.
And that space became a spiritual space for those young people. Again, don’t forget, like Grenada where you can’t get off, this island surrounded by, obviously, this island surrounded by water. But this location, this was circumnavigated, again, by alligators and crocodiles, the forces that be. So, this, say, space they found themselves in. And again, somehow the reality of what I was shooting and what was happening in that room just took off. These people were playing their parents, their grandparents, their aunts and uncles.
So, it was a transformational space. It became a spiritual space. You can’t lie, it just took off. What was happening behind the camera was happening in front of the camera.
Rizvana Bradley: I think you describing it as a spiritual space, and again, I’m just sort of obsessed with the texture.
Steve McQueen: I think if Black people in London at that time didn’t have those spaces, didn’t have that identity at that time, to the music, they would have been a deep psychosis. Absolutely. It’s not if, or but, or maybe. They had to be themselves within that space. They had to find it, they had to discover it through movement. They had to discover it through sound. They had to feel it. They had to be it. It was real. It was real, it was real, it was real. It was real.
Rizvana Bradley: And what you’re describing as a sort of cathartic space, you really see the sweat drip down the wall, and it’s just so beautifully rendered. I suppose, in the interest of time, I should ask my second question, which is actually about the role of the medium in your artistic process.
So, I think in a 2015 piece in the New York Times, you were speaking about your first feature film, Hunger, and you pointed out that in your practice, it is the idea that dictates the form. And I was quite struck by that, not the other way round, right? So elsewhere, you said, "It’s about the subject not the medium, and how the subject is asking to be represented.” And I’m wondering if you can just say a bit about how different ideas have compelled you towards different media and forms, and even different formats within film?
Steve McQueen: Let’s talk about Hunger. My relationship to hunger, to Bobby Sands, to the hunger strike, was to do with seeing him on TV one day, and seeing a number underneath his image. And then asking my mom, "What is that?” And my mother saying to me, "This is how many days this person has been on a hunger strike.” And the only way I can relate to it was as a child, because I sort of, what time you go to bed, what clothes you wear? "Don’t do this, do this.” Everything is dictated to you by your parents. But the only thing you can, to resist, to reframe, is to not eat. Everyone’s been there, "You are not leaving this table until you finish that food.” And you don’t eat, it just seems like your only sort of place to resist.
So for me, having that seed in me from that time, as far as the hunger strike was concerned, and Bobby Sands, the whole idea of feature film, the whole idea of film, the whole idea of narrative came about because, for me, that subject matter when I got older, of course, you have a different perspective on it when you were a child to when you’re an adult. But it had a profound effect on me, the whole idea of someone not eating in order to sort of be heard, and relating to it because I was a child at that point, and relating to it further along when you’re an adult is a different thing, of course.
But there’s some kind of purity within that as a child, your first contact. And for some reason, what was that reason? It needed to be a narrative. It needed to be a narrative. It needed to be a narrative, and also, I think because when it’s your first film, my first film, I thought it was going to be my last film. I thought, "Okay. Well, if this is going to be my first film. If this was going to be my only film, I wanted to go out with two guns blazing.” So that was it. The subject said to me narrative film, and that’s how it had to be. That’s what it had to be. So I just delved into it, that was it.
Rizvana Bradley: Thank you so much. Thank goodness it wasn’t your last film because we’ve just had such an amazing extension of your work into today, but I think I might invite my other two panelists.
Shannon Jackson: Clara, could you just advance to that last slide you had, since we’re on the subject of feature film?
Steve McQueen: Okay.
Shannon Jackson: Thank you. Partly because it’s queued up, but also because I think Rizvana’s last question and your incredible response about how the subject matter chooses the medium, I think really helps stitch a lot for the range of audience members we have here. We have students for whom video art or video installation is new, new as a form, but who might know your feature film career much better. And then we also have experts in this audience who know your video artwork quite well.
Steve McQueen: Sure.
Shannon Jackson: Maybe as we start to gather a few Q&A questions from the audience, could you say a little bit more about this question, abou t when, say when something chooses to have a beginning, middle and end, chooses a narrative, as you say happened with Hunger, or as you say happened with Western Deep, and when it doesn’t, when it chooses what you’ve said in other interviews, is maybe a more abstract form or a fractured form?
Steve McQueen: Yeah, I understand, but not necessarily abstract will fracture it. It’s just that it becomes most sculptural, not to say that other aspects don’t become sculptural, there’s a narrative base to it, rather than a 180 degrees sort of situation. So it’s about what one is trying to achieve with the piece, maybe it’s a meditation rather than this sort of meditation and reflection, but again, sometimes that sort of narrative, beginning, middle, end is necessary.
It’s horses for courses. It’s what the work needs, that’s all. So, it’s simple. Like Charlotte is a constant projection, Cold Breath is a constant projection. And of course, both things are one image. Again, Static is one image, constant projection.
Shannon Jackson: Right. Okay. Thank you. So, with that going, I wonder, maybe Clara, you could unshare your screen and we’ll enter into a bit more of a conversation mode with a fuller grid, and I’ll ask Clara and Rizvana to highlight themselves and come back. And also our teaching assistants are graduate students who help with the course, Edgar and Casey, who always help us navigate some of the questions that start to queue up. Actually, perhaps we could start with a few things that are coming forward in the chat and in the official Q&A.
Steve McQueen: Go for the hardest one.
Shannon Jackson: Go for the hardest? Okay. Some are just five-paragraph essays here. Let’s see. And this is a question that also might help people get more of the durational experience of some of your work from Kojo, about the representation of violence in your work, in the artworks exhibited at the Tate. And it seems in your artwork more generally violence is typically deferred to a space or time beyond the camera’s frame. It becomes the visual absence which feels very present.
And so Kojo is interested in the contrast between this strategy and what might appear in feature length films, where violence is more, in Kojo’s sense, more explicitly depicted. You might ask, if you agree with that, could you talk about the oscillation between these representational modes? So, it’s also maybe a discussion of medium too, in addition to violence.
Steve McQueen: Well, I’ll just start by all our lives have been realized by violence. All of our lives have been realized by violence. There’s not one person looking at me now on the screen, whose life hasn’t been realized by violence, some more than others. Again, one has to sort of not be afraid to interpret it. One mustn’t be afraid to sort of look at it and own it.
My thing about it is own it. And again, it’s one of those things where this isn’t Disney, and I think people are waking up to that. Are your blinkers on? I think also as an artist, as a human being, as anyone, one has to be aware of that and deal with it really. I don’t choose and pick when things happen. Even the violence that one puts on themselves, the first port of call of violence often is the case that within your circle, the violence is happening within your circle, but it was put on you from the outside.
Shannon Jackson: Would you agree with the perception from Kojo that you are more explicitly representing violence in feature films?
Steve McQueen: No.
Shannon Jackson: Less explicitly.
Steve McQueen: No.
Shannon Jackson: Okay, thanks.
Steve McQueen: No. Have you seen Martin Scorsese’s films? Wake up people, hello? Look at all of American bloody films. Look at the cowboys and Indians, they die. Come on people, wakey, wakey.
Shannon Jackson: Casey, do you want to queue up a question?
Steve McQueen: Did you see the cartoon recently? Look at American film history. Tom and Jerry, all that kind of crap. Come on. Sorry.
Shannon Jackson: Thanks for the context.
Casey: So I have a question here from Averick, and it’s also a bit about the question of medium specificity. So, Averick writes, "In the last year or so, many aspects of our world have transitioned online, including the experience of cinema. Can you speak about your hesitancy or resistance to presenting your artworks online, and the importance of experiencing them in space and in person?
Steve McQueen: My reluctancy is that, goodness gracious. Sometimes I am a bit of a snob in that regard because I think, "Goodness gracious. I need my works to be experienced.” Myself and Clara, we just did a whole presentation of why we want people to see them in this space. And I hate when I find my stuff online, I just try to take it down immediately because it’s not right, because you’ve got your phone and you’ve got your laptop. You’ve got your screen.
This is another way of interpreting a reality which is not to do with you being at home and distracted, going to the fridge, not answering the doorbell. It’s just trying to sort of have the space where people can experience. Look, I get the fact that, and I’m very sorry that not everyone can see these works and be talking about these works. Not everyone has seen them and I do apologize.
I wish that wasn’t the case, but I remember not seeing James Coleman’s work forever and having all these books on James Coleman, and reading, look at the pictures and reading about it. And I was just so fascinated with this guy’s work. James Coleman, I first saw his work at the Pompidou and it was just so amazing. I could have never had that experience twice if I saw it on the screen or on a phone or whatever, that was just amazing.
It made me asked new questions. It made me discover so many different things. It’s just like language, you’re doing things differently. By doing it differently, you discover new things. So that’s all, I’m just trying to protecting some kind of language, if you will. That’s all. But I apologize.
Shannon Jackson: We apologize for you whenever the students want to see you online, too. I think it is really great in terms of tacking back to all that you were discussing with Clara about the approach, about spatial experience of the exhibition that was so carefully curated, and also obviously, works well to respond to Averick’s question by referencing the importance of his dad’s work.
Steve McQueen: Sure. I hope to be in Berkeley soon and we’ll show work.
Shannon Jackson: Okay, great. Edgar, do you see some questions coming up that you want to put forward for us?
Steve McQueen: Hit me.
Edgar: Yeah, we actually have a lot of questions. And this question, I think kind of connects a little bit with what we’re talking about. So, an anonymous person here shared the question, "As someone who is dyslexic, I empathize with that moment of discovery that happened. Could you describe a bit more the ways in which visual imagery shaped your thinking, and the ways that written language maybe failed you?”
Steve McQueen: What’s it about it? Oh, goodness gracious, how do I jump into that one? And I’ll try, feet first, don’t look down. I was a person who was just curious. I was just curious, nothing can break my curiosity. Again, I think reading was reading. I could read but it was difficult sometimes, and the focus, but it was just all about getting through it and I think for me, art was just a way out. Art was just a salvation in a way, and sometimes the image was just far more complex than the text.
So, it was about looking and finding out and discovering. It was about not being afraid and also not being afraid to make mistakes. That was the thing and I was very fortunate that I could draw, that was all. Goodness gracious, if I couldn’t draw, if I wasn’t a draftsman, who knows where I’d be? Because in some ways, it was like being a boxer or being an athlete, that got me through, that and got me over the hill. And therefore, that I gained things afterwards. That was my portal, to be able to draw. So that was it.
And images, I think you relate. Yes, I think you’re right. You’ll definitely advance with the images. You can read, and you can read quicker with images. And again, I think when all you have is your eye, literally, all I have is my eye, you recognize things or you can interpret, or you can make choices very quickly. Apparently I shoot fast. When I shoot a film, apparently I’m fast.
I don’t know. I’ve never been on anyone else’s movie set. I don’t know if I shoot fast or not, but apparently, I’m fast. I find it weird because it’s a case of knowing what you want and not knowing what you want. So, that’s it. So yeah, I don’t know. But yeah, there you go. I don’t know if I’ve said anything interesting there.
Shannon Jackson: Absolute response and jumping right in without looking down. Thank you.
Steve McQueen: I think that’s the way to do it. My big mantra, the fact is we’re all going to die anyway. We are all going to die anyway. That was the biggest thing, that was my biggest discovery. I know it sounds corny, me saying that, but it’s the truth. We’re all going to die anyway, so what’s the point? Just go out with two guns blazing, what have you got to lose? Nothing, we are all going to die.
What’s the worst that’s ever happened to you? It’s happened to millions of people. What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you? It’s happened to millions and millions of people, so just get on with it. Don’t worry about it, don’t care. When you don’t care, that’s when things start to happen to you. Take a risk, we are all going to die anyway. I’m going on a bit, but it’s the truth. Who gives a shit?
Shannon Jackson: It’s hugely important for everybody in the audience to hear that.
Steve McQueen: We are all going to die, so just go out with two guns blazing, take some people with you. Whoops. Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that, but you know what I mean. Don’t misinterpret me people, please.
Shannon Jackson: No, people can take that with them the way they want to. All right. So, people have some very specific questions. For instance, some are really coming back to the Charlotte piece.
Steve McQueen: Okay.
Shannon Jackson: Jen is asking to what degree you reconcile … Let’s see, how do you phrase it, Jan? How she herself writes about the experience and how do you expect the viewer to … Do they impose associations? And, of course, it’s an image that corresponds to other cinematic images from the history of cinema. Do you imagine people have those associations’.
Steve McQueen: Look, that was, no, they can have whatever association they want, but that was never in my mind when I was doing it.
Shannon Jackson: Right.
Steve McQueen: Again, maybe, again, subconsciously, but it was one of those things, but it wasn’t. And, for me, Charlotte Rampling, I just rang her, and you asked why, I don’t know. There was something about the ’60s and ’70s and some cinema, and I was interested in her and her eyes, because as she got older her eyes had very heavy eyelids. Very heavy, very heavy. And, for me, it’s almost like you can do this and there’ll be up, but it was like, as age set in, in this so-called beauty on the screen, age set in.
And I was just interested in some of, there was something about that. There was something about that. And I don’t know, there was something about that. And the whole idea of touching. I’d never seen her before, just only seem this screen, and somehow it was all the piercing the screen, to touch the screen, to touch that person I’ve only seen if I see a book or magazine or on the screen. It was all to touch and to see in cinema, an eye and everything else like that.
So, again, people have said that, but that wasn’t in my head when I was doing it. It was a relationship. It was a relationship. Yes, this finger, often one would think it’s intrusive but in some ways I felt that she was as strong as what was. There was a certain kind of attention, as it were.
Shannon Jackson: Others are asking about what’s ahead? About more projects ahead, including the work on Paul Robeson, if you’d care to share?
Steve McQueen: No, I’m not doing that.
Shannon Jackson: Oh, okay. You heard it here.
Steve McQueen: No. But I’m doing a piece called Occupied City right now. I’m directing a piece called Occupied City. It’s about Amsterdam from 1940 to 1945. It’s based on my wife’s book, and it illuminates what was going on during that time, during the Nazi occupation. So, it’s an interesting book. It’s not like what one would think of as how I do it, but I’m very excited about it. It’s not people talking and whatnot, but it’s completely different. So, I’m very excited about that.
As well as I’m completing the three-hour documentary called Uprising, which is based around the New Cross fire in London in February 1981, and it’s before the fire and after the fire, which killed 14 young Black men and women in February 1981. So, that’s been completed now.
Shannon Jackson: Incredible. Everyone’s already looking forward, I know. Casey, do you see something else that you’d like to, either an amalgam of a few questions or one more?
Casey: Yeah. So we have a lot of Berkeley students attending this talk today and a lot of them are filmmakers themselves, and they have questions about what advice you might give them in terms of where they are now attempting to realize their visions?
Steve McQueen: I think you are important. I think we need you, whoever you are, as far as film is concerned. We need you. We need you so badly. You’re important because we need those voices. We need those Black female directors. We need you, whoever you are out there. We need you. We need those Asian directors. We need those unrepresented voices that need to use the platform, which is film and it’s such a powerful platform, and there’s so much in the way you interpret things, the way you see things.
I mean, my interest in film came from Queer cinema. That was my real interest in cinema because I was seeing things, people interpreting things in a way that I had never seen before. I saw an apple differently. It was wonderful. I was living through a revolution of film. I was present when that revolution of film was happening, which was Queer cinema, and I was going every Friday and Wednesday to cinema to see those movies. And it changed my perspective on what’s possible in film. So you’ll need it. You’ll need it. That’s what I’ll say.
Shannon Jackson: Wonderful. Thank you. Edgar. Want to follow up with that?
Edgar: Yeah, definitely. I wanted to ask you this question from Imhotep here. They’re asking, "As a filmmaker, how do you navigate this art form that is also a capitalist endeavor and relies on outside financial investment often from people and institutions who might be uncomfortable with the subject matter that you explore in order for the work to exist?”
Steve McQueen: Take it and run.
Steve McQueen: That’s how it’s always happened. If it’s any out ball, you just take it and run. That’s it.
Shannon Jackson: Wonderful.
Steve McQueen: That’s it, is the answer to that question. I can’t believe someone would say more. Take it and run.
Shannon Jackson: Okay. #&ope n/p#&close
Steve McQueen: It’s what you do with it.
Shannon Jackson: There’s no pure position. So, yeah. Yeah. Listen, what money’s clean? Just take it and run and just try to do something good with it. That’s it. Look, can we forget filmmakers now and do artists? And filmmakers always get the big cut of the pie. Also to reference the different economies that you circulate in too. It might be interesting for people to hear a bit more about that.
Steve McQueen: Money?
Shannon Jackson: What it is that works for a collector for feature films and the different economies you’ve worked in.
Steve McQueen: Yes, yes. Money.
Shannon Jackson: Right.
Steve McQueen: Money. Money. The best thing anyone has ever said to me about that and it was very important, "Don’t worry about the money. It will come.” And it was the best advice I ever got. I never did anything for money, never. And, "Don’t worry, the money will come.” Because you’re in the day, you got to pay your rent. You know what I mean? You got to do this, you got to do that, you got to do that, whatever.
But also you have to keep the choices that you want to keep. It’s very important that you make the work that you need to make. And I think, as far as that is concerned, you stay the course. And, of course, again, not to compromise. It’s very important not to compromise. It’s very important.
It’s very easy me saying that now, but I try not to. In fact, I’ve done everything to do badly. I made a movie about a hunger striker, I made a movie about sex addiction, I made a movie about slavery. Again, I just think that if people are talking, if you’re bringing something to the fore, which is important for you, just do it. And that’s it. I mean, money is a funny thing. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m not an expert, that’s for sure.
Shannon Jackson: Maybe I’ll ask Edgar and Casey if you see another potent question, and also Rizvana and Clara, as Steve has continued in response to any of these questions, if something else has occurred to you that you want to ask him or a way that you might even respond to some of them yourself.
Steve McQueen: Hard questions. Throw it at me. Don’t worry about it. Don’t be polite. I know you won’t be, so go for it.
Clara Kim: Can I ask a question to Steve?
Shannon Jackson: Go for it.
Steve McQueen: Please. Oh, dear.
Clara Kim: One of the real fortunes of working with an artist like Steve is the time that we have together and it was in the two or three years, Steve, that we were working on the show, the way you were navigating, coming to the gallery to set up the show, to editing in your Soho studio, the final edits of Small Axe. I mean, it was so remarkable how fluidly you were moving through these spaces.
But I wanted to ask you a question about voice and responsibility in all of this, because I think it was so incredible that this was even before Black Lives Matter when you came out in quite a public way about the BAFTA nominees a year ago and the fact that they were mostly white, there weren’t any people of color that were nominated and you were quite vocal about it.
And then you came back after Black Lives Matter and also made another statement in that regard. Then I think it’s really interesting what you do with your voice, both in the way that you work and put your work out there, whether it’s art or film, but the way that you really harness that platform. And I thought it was so interesting how, for Small Axe, you were quite conscious of the fact that you wanted to work with a diverse crew as well.
So, I just wonder about that because I think it’s something that I think a lot of the students and those of us who are actively working in the art world or in the film industry, I think those questions are more relevant than ever.
Steve McQueen: Absolutely. As I said before, I mean, it’s Small Axe. Again, it’s not being silent, speaking out, you can’t not do that. That’s how things change. Look how things have changed. I mean, you could think of, again, you can see with 12 Years a Slave, you can look at before 12 Years a Slave and after 12 Years a Slave. I remember, I’ll never forget, there was some point when I was making that picture, I mean, it was in the process, and someone said to me, "Your impossible movie.” This was someone who was in my camp. You know what I mean? The amount of resistance, the amount of nonsense that I had to deal with at that time. I was, "No.” And you correct people.
So, you see the benefits of what’s happened now with Black cinema. It’s incredible, but we’re not there yet, totally not there yet, absolutely not there yet. But it’s very interesting how things … There’s the before and after and, I mean, how can I not talk out about things? How can I not, especially when you’re dealing with a situation. On a few occasions when I was on a set and there’ll be not a person of color apart from myself on set. And I was, "This can’t fly.” So, for example, with Small Axe, I… and this is something where it comes into money because you take people’s money, you take their money and you could do good things with it.
So, on my set there were at least two apprentices. Helen Scott, who was a researcher and a producer and Shabier Kirchner was the DP, and every department had these two people of color on each department and a whole team of junior accountants. So, it was mandatory. It had to be. It had to be. And also obviously important, a lot of people within the other elements of the crew, because if you don’t actively do it, it will never happen. And it’s very important, very important, very important.
Shannon Jackson: We have a fun question. Casey, do you want to ask it?
Casey: Yeah. And so this is a question from Catherine and she asks, "If you were going to build a museum, where would it be and how would you design it? Or, to open it up a little more, how would you change the art world’s institutions to reflect a more just world?”
Steve McQueen: Well, obviously it’ll be free. I think it’d be open. I didn’t know where it would be. I don’t know where it will be, but wherever it would be, it would be about discussions. I think there’ll be a seminar once a week, which will be great. An open debate. There’ll be a great exhibition program, a great cinema program, classic films projected, and also discussions after the movie and lectures and discussions, open discussions after the movie, as well as an exhibition space.
I mean, it’s about conversation. It’s about talking. It’s about listening more than anything, more than talking, in fact, and having those debates because those debates. I mean, the ICA in the ’90s was just in London, was just a remarkable space. I mean, it was a remarkable space because it was a place where all the artists from our art schools congregated on a Friday night or whatever, and there would be a bar there and a restaurant, whatever. And they had exhibitions there, and then there’d be this amazing bookshop. Oh, yeah. You’ll have to have an amazing bookshop. Absolutely amazing bookshop, theory, an amazing bookshop, amazing bookshop.
So, it’s got to be an amazing bookshop because that’s who I met, for example, in the ICA bookshop, because it was notorious. You got some amazing books. And you know, no one goes to the library. Everyone knows the book shop and stands there for hours reading in the bookshop. That’s what you would do. I mean, sorry, but libraries had no money for new books. Come on.
So, that’s what it will be like. It’ll be a place of debate, a place of heated debate, and enjoying. It was a wonderful time, the ICA in the 1990s. I will base it on that. I mean every important artist at that time, that’s what they wanted to show. That’s what they wanted to show there. So, it was amazing.
Oh, I’m sorry. I’m going on a bit. Now you’re getting me excited. So, we had a great show there called Mirage. That was a very important show in London. That was 1995? 1994. Was it 1994? 1994, Mirage? 1995. 1995, Mirage. That was a very important show at the ICA. It was curated by David A. Bailey.
And that’s where I met Oakley for the first time in an ICA bookshop. He had a red cravat on and a blue coat. He said, "Sorry, are you Steve McQueen?” I said, "Yes,” and we just started chatting and it was just wonderful. It was beautiful. The ’90s, there were moments where they’ll throw things at me. I mean, there was hardly any Black representations of artists in the ’90s.
I mean, it isn’t like it is now, of course, but it was about mobility in a way. We had cheap airlines in the ’90s. We had Ryanair, we had British Midland, we had EasyJet. So, I mean, you haven’t got terrible flu environment, of course. I was naive and foolish at that time, but there was easy flights into Europe. So, it was cheap. SYou traveled, you saw things and stuff, so it was pretty amazing. That’s what I would do. It excites me, that environment, because it was, oh, it was so like this. Oh, it was so interesting. It was so vibrant. It was so vibrant, so vibrant.
Shannon Jackson: Well, remembering, thank goodness you were shipped at 8 years old to the museum, so that place that you learned to feel that you could be at home, it’s obviously a place that you were reshaping.
Steve McQueen: And you know what’s interesting about that? Do you know what was interesting about that? I didn’t mind that it was difficult.
Shannon Jackson: It was challenging work.
Steve McQueen: No, because it was something to aspire to. Again, we were very lucky in England, we had the BBC. Hope you stay, BBC. I watched programs I had no flipping idea what it was about, but I was interested in it because it was interesting. It’s about that. It’s not about dumbing down at all. It’s not about making it easy. It’s actually making it interesting. Don’t bring it down. Don’t be patronizing. No, that’s ridiculous. It’s actually to nurture, to bring people to that moment of realization. It’s exciting.
Shannon Jackson: We’re all excited. Everybody in the chat is ready to go to this museum and install this museum. And just to close things out, I know that the way that you are talking right now, Steve, and all throughout this entire dialogue, chimed so much with the goals that I know Pam Kramlich has for her art foundation and for her collection. And as you well know if we could unmute and release the video for Pam. This challenging work, work that can be difficult, is something that she has never shied away from and I think always wants to figure out how to share publicly.
So, Pam, I wonder if you could close us out with a thought or two? Can we show Pam’s video, as well? I don’t know if Aaron can do that or if we do that. But at the very least we’ll hear you, Pam.
Steve McQueen: Yeah. Wonderful. Hi, guys.
Dick Kramlich: Hi.
Pam Kramlich: Hi, Steve, thank you so much for being on today. I think it’s so important for the students. It’s important for Dick and me to know that we’re going in the right direction. As Shannon said, my real dream would be to be able to give people around the world this excitement online. And I think we’re getting to a point in life today with technology and whatnot that maybe there are a lot of people out there that haven’t been able to realize the experience that you’ve had or that we’ve all had. And I just wonder how we can get further into doing that in the right way. This has been so exciting. I just would love so many more people to be able to access what we’re doing here.
Steve McQueen: Great. Well, you’re pioneers at what you do and what you’ve done. So it’s, again, Well, what can I say?
Pam Kramlich: I think we have to keep the dialogue going. And, I mean, when we come up with ideas, we just have to work together to try and make them happen so that we can make this all better even than what we’ve got now, which is pretty exciting compared to where we started in 1987 when Dick and I thought we wanted to do this. I think there’s really extraordinary possibilities. I don’t know, Dick, what do you think?
Dick Kramlich: Steve, thank you. This was a real treat. I think your humanity and your insights are without parallel. Really appreciate your time today.
Steve McQueen: Well, I very much appreciate you guys because I’ve known you for … Goodness gracious, I mean, way over 23 years. It’s incredible. So you’ve been there from the get-go.
Dick Kramlich: Yeah, exactly. Then let’s keep it up.
Steve McQueen: Yeah. Take care. Thank you.
Shannon Jackson: They’re there for the long haul, thank you to Pam and Dick. Thank you to Clara and Rizvana, thank you to the A plus D team, Paris, Casey and Edgar, and Steve McQueen. Thank you for being you.
Steve McQueen: Thank you. Can I say one last thing to all the students listening and stuff like that?
Shannon Jackson: Please. Go ahead.
Steve McQueen: Take a chance. I mean, I’m going on, calling me saying, "It’s very corny,” but, at the same time, it’s very important because you’re very important, extremely important. And I know I’m saying this to even my young self, I remember, "You’re very important.” And it’s what you do is very important because sometimes you’ll be discouraged, sometimes you’ll feel you’re going nowhere, but the best thing about work is to keep on working. It will come through. Don’t stop. There’s times when you’ll be low. Keep going. Just keep going, okay? I know this can be, "Why am I doing this?” But it’s a millisecond away. That number one record is only three minutes away. You know what I mean? So that’s what it’s about. So just keep going on and pioneer through, please.
Dick Kramlich: We will.
Steve McQueen: And you’ve done it. You’re talking about it.
Shannon Jackson: And all the young people here, younger people will as well. Feet first, don’t look down, power through. Steve McQueen, thank you for your stories.
Steve McQueen: My pleasure. Thank you so much guys.
Shannon Jackson: You made a memory for all of us today.
Steve McQueen: Oh, you guys are great. Thank you.
Shannon Jackson: Stay well.
Steve McQueen: Thanks for making it difficult.
Shannon Jackson: That’s the best way.
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