Steve Carr is a multi-disciplinary artist with an extensive catalogue of film and video. Often humorous and evoking a subtle sense of displacement in the viewer, Carr's moving image works have both featured himself as performer and also as a director of scenarios employing the skills of others. In this interview we discuss the roots of his work in performance, his collaborations with film industry professionals, and a recent residency in Japan.
Mark Williams (MW): You recently went to Sapporo to undertake your first ever artists residency. How was the experience?
Steve Carr (SC): I was there for three months. It was quite amazing to have such a solid amount of time to work on my practice. In the first month I found myself being quite panicky and stressed about not having ideas. It's hard to imagine three months as a time period. It just feels really short. So I was trying to resolve really bad ideas instead of just letting it naturally transition into something. All the ideas that I was having in the first month were like being a tourist and running around taking snapshots. It was clichéd and responding to very basic things about Japan. If an artist from Japan came to New Zealand and started making art about sheep, that was kind of like what I was starting to do.
I started to relax and approach things that I was intuitively interested in, [like] the super groomed dogs. My dog and most of my friends' dogs are very rough, organic and unkempt. Whereas every dog owner in Sapporo would go to the park and brush their dogs. They were very beautiful and kind of controlled. The Japanese, at least those around me, were very honest about wanting to control nature. So you cut a dog's fur like a bonsai tree. And you have this tree that organically grows but you want that branch to go on a direction [so] you have these massive bits of wood holding them in place. I responded to that and in the second month reflected on why.
The residency itself was about encouraging collaborations, which worked in perfectly to my practice. You're in this large five story building [the Intercross Creative Centre] with different creative practices happening on each floor. You've got a guy who works with robots, people who make giant soft toys and teddybears, professional documentary cinematographers and more commercial photographers. I like the idea that an artist could go into this space and really respond to a particular skill that some of these other artists have.
MW: You made Aona with another artist working there?
SC: Yeah, that was one of the first works that I did. The shuttle cock in my mouth was shot by a documentary film maker in the building. With the residency there was an opportunity to use other people in a collaborative sense. You use someone straight away and there's that really nice kind of non-relationship. So I was there with my shirt off and getting vulnerable and I think that comes through a little bit in the photographs. There's this strangeness to them. And then you build a relationship and the dynamic of the work changes. I think it's worth looking at how that can affect the translation of the work.
MW: It's interesting you mention vulnerability. Your earlier performance works feature yourself as the performer, whereas in the later video versions you cast other people.
SC: The later works are often more about that collaboration and highlighting other peoples skills. The Freddy impersonator [Steve Larkins] was this guy who would do his performances comfortably in front of thousands of people. Doing it for the camera wasn't something he normally did. I like that it became about him.
I started off in performance doing Elvis impersonations and all that kind of stuff stemmed from there. [Later] I realised that the evidence of stills and video didn't really give a clear understanding of what that performance was like. But on the one hand that's what is so great about performance, having to be there and be a part of something that no one else will ever see again.
One of my first [video] works, Air Guitar (2001), was basically a performance for the camera. A lot of my early work has me as the main protagonist and then later on playing with the idea of trying to blend into the background, [for example] Hay Fight (2002).
MW: Are you still interested in performance as opposed to works for the camera?
SC: Majo, the film where I'm blowing bubbles, is a work that became really performative again. That was refreshing and felt really new. What Japan made me realise was that I had this amazing community of friends who help me with cinematography and sound back in New Zealand, and all of a sudden they weren't there. I wanted to make a work that was lo-fi and didn't rely on that stuff and Majo was kind of reflective of me being isolated and in this space and becoming a little bit mad. I just started sticking things in my mouth and I couldn't work out why. You do quite strange things when you're alone. But yeah to be honest I hadn't really considered doing live performance for a while.
Those earlier films are quite short and I was interested in what the loop could do as a performative moment. Often it's only the successful moments that are retained, like you throw the basketball behind your head and it goes through the net and that's why you put it up [online]. In Table Cloth Pull you've got this long period of waiting and then this attempt to pull the cloth and then it fails and then it happens again and the same event repeats. I like that people watch that film and there's still this expectation that I will be able to do it. I like how performance can directly affect an audience and makes them vulnerable or anxious. Or celebrating that moment of being witness to something. I think that my films are successful when some of that comes through.
I see film as another way of dealing with materiality. With all the different ideas coming through in the different mediums I use I'll have an idea and look through the potential options and whether it should be photographed, sculpted or whether it should be filmed.
MW: I watched the doco New Artland where you worked with a cinematographer. What is your standard process for working with someone else? Do you usually get what you're looking for? Or is that not the point so much?
SC: I select these people because they are really skilled at what they do. I think it would be a less successful strategy to over-direct what you want to come out of it. You're picking them because they have an idea about what they are going to bring to the project anyway. I don't do any storyboarding or anything like that. I talk about the tone and the kinds of shots I'm after and they'll bring suggestions about how this particular shot would help that come through. With earlier works where I'm in the film it's hard to direct that.
A lot of the cinematographers I have used are used to working in music videos and commercials. With Burn Out it was about being really clear that I wanted a lot of space between the camera and the car. With an advert you'd definitely have the car closer. To pull back and lose those details was different to how it would normally be shot. I wanted it to be about the landscape, when the smoke mixes in organically with the landscape and the car becomes this little dot within that space.
That work was also acknowledging an event that I saw. I was coming out of that road where I shot the film, I looked to the right to check the traffic and there was this guy doing this. I just love the fact that here was this guy all by himself, no friends, just doing this thing for himself. He couldn't see it [but] for me it was such a beautiful performance that I wanted to reconstruct it.
A lot of [my collaborators] are very well respected, often well paid and I give them some lunch and some beers at the end of the day. So they have to be doing it because it's offering them something, making them think about things in a different way. Building those relationships is really important to me.
MW: Going back to the documentary that had the snowball work in it, I'm pretty dubious about these shows that profile artists, what did you think about the show and how they represented you?
SC: I was actually really happy with it. I thought it was a great show. There is this moment, for those who haven't seen it, where it all turns to custard and the snowballs start hurting the children. I like that they were honest to that happening and didn't oversensationalise it.
The way that I work is normally in very small groups. What became difficult was that I'd set up all these snowballs and then you'd have to stop and talk to the camera about why you're doing these things. It really slowed the project down. That was part of the reason why the snowballs got so cold. I hadn't considered how the actual filming of the TV show would add another layer to the process.
The way that I've edited that film, the boy gets hurt in the very last few seconds, the camera drops down and that's when I cut. I liked the way the camera dropped and dictated the end of the film. Whereas if it cut there, it would have been “did it get worse, what happened?” Live performance teaches you to consider all these outcomes and ask, “what happens if this happens?” and how will I respond to it.
But I really like that show and the team were great to work with. Having the film crew there just became part of the collaboration. Maybe an artist who's very much about working by themselves might find it more difficult.
MW: A number of your works reference childhood. It that something you're still interested in?
SC: The early stuff was about adults and childhood. I was in the film with the children to create that tension with the viewer with this very innocent act that was happening. This was 2002, so it's a long time ago.
Turkey Shoot is based on a [childhood] memory of watching this show about fake food and how ice cream was mashed potatoes and stuff like that. And being grossed out, thinking, “was that true?” then researching it and finding out that it was.
It was a long time ago that I was making those works and maybe that's what makes them less interesting for me than the works that I'm doing now, where they can be easily defined as being about those issues I'm dealing with. Whereas the later films are working on different levels and you can enjoy them for different reasons perhaps. In Cowboys and Indians I liked how it had structure, whereas before that it was sort of scenes or moments.
MW: I remember reading a review of Dive Pool which dismissed it fairly off-handedly as "smut art." Could we talk about that work a little bit?
SC: That's a work about Elvis and how he used to sit in the pool. At the time I was doing the sculptural and impersonation pieces and reading everything on him, getting kind of obsessed and taking everything I read as truth. I read that he used to sit in a pool and watch girls. But the interesting thing was he used to sit in the pool with a scuba diving outfit.
That work was actually about being really nonsexual. It was about these bubbles, it was about the underwater, about what Super 8 did to the colours and these girls being placed kind of awkwardly in that and becoming very unsexy. It wasn't about me perving at girls while on a superficial level it is. When it was exhibited there was also a series of glass fire extinguishers as well. So there is a relationship between the extinguishers and the film but then when it gets reviewed they just talk about the film. Sometimes works are taken out of context to suit the direction of the writing or strengthen a particular point of view. I believe if you're going to comment on a show make it about the show not just one part of the show.
MW: That's pertinent given the context of us talking for CIRCUIT. It's certainly something we have to do with the site in terms of acknowledging that there is often a greater context.
SC: Early on there's been times where I've shown only film but it's usually shown alongside photography or sculpture. Turkey Shoot was shown alongside these large-format photographs of folded napkins. They just seemed very cold and perhaps a little bit too serious. That was what I thought was interesting. You have this film which is very visceral and kind of disgusting and I think the film really made that show. I also think context is really important.
Skimming Stones is this very small film of me and two boys in our dressing gowns skimming stones across this ocean. In the film it's very dark and uses the traditional day for night technique to simulate a night scene. That work was shown in the front window space at Michael Lett. What I liked about that work was that during the day you couldn't see it and it only came to life at night.
MW: Another comment about your work that was made in relation to Smoke Train but that could apply to some of your other work is that it "shows how quickly social norms can become stigmas."
SC: Well I don't mind the psychological readings to these works but I guess what I've worked on more recently is making works that aren't so easily defined.
I really enjoy Smoke Train. I like that it's using a mother and daughter that I'd met for the first time and I think these things come through in the film. I like that it's total childhood memory. It's what I used to do with my mum, so I like that replacement of the artist with the actor. While the act is a little inappropriate perhaps, the love between them and the joy of the actual game completely outweighs comments on whether it's PC or not.
I hope other points come through in the film. That's kind of what I said about the [video] loop as well. You see it once and you think, “that's a bit naughty she's smoking a cigarette with a kid, and how do I feel about that?” Probably awkward and uneasy [but] hopefully you see it again and it dilutes that moment and you realise they have this amazing connection.
I think the angle on that shot is really nice. That was the cinematographer's call on that one. It was just this over shoulder, being part of it shot. I think there were some decisions made through that in order to make the viewer a part of that experience. Looking back on it perhaps it's more of a critique of it, more observational.