Conversation with Jeff Mills
For the past ten years, you have increasingly been dealing with visual arts. How do you position yourself and your work between visual arts and music?
I think you have this window of opportunities to affect your viewer, or your listener, and what you say in that window of time has to have multidimensional types of meanings. First you have to get attention by doing something, and then there must be subtypes of messages to make the people think long after they experiment the piece of work. Somehow, there are things that could be connected to them and make people reflect on their own lives. But you have a certain amount of time to do that. You don’t have your whole career. If I look at Buster Keaton and Josephine Baker and probably so many other artists….at some point in my life, I am going to be completely broke. That is one of the lessons they’re teaching. No matter how successful you are, at some point you could make the wrong decision. So, for me, art is an extension of what I normally do as a DJ, because you are dealing with people that you don’t know and you have a small opportunity to catch their attention and I know that the more you work with it, the more art that you make, the more music you play, the more opportunities you have. You get better at this process. I am used to it, this is just a different prospective of what I normally do. I specialized in making something from many different things. And so, I surround myself with all these things to give me ideas or, at least, different points that I can connect at some point to make something. Art, music… it is the same process. It is just a different perspective of the same process. These are just tools. It’s the message that is the most important thing. Josephine Baker lived a very loud life. I’ve just broken her life down into different parts and moved them closer to the viewer. I have always been in the “people business”. I love the act of trying to bring something to their attention. That is my life’s work. And if it is not music or art, it would be something else that transmits ideas. In other ways, I am just learning how to use colours as oppose to notes and chords, shapes and things like that. When I am done with music, maybe I can spend more time with art and really learn the mechanics. Maybe I will study art history more, the same way I studied music history after I started in order to have a better understanding.
Can you speak a little bit about your first few experiences like the way you started to work around Buster Keaton’s films?
Well, in my opinion, I did not really begin to make more interesting music until after certain points of my life. I had a child. My responsibilities became completely different. Whatever I was doing at the time, I had to get serious about it. And so life has a way of affecting things. When I am studying art, what is going to catch my attention the most? Or music, what is going to be the most meaningful type of work of music? Who’s the artist, what is the life he or she lived? I am preparing now to get my life in a position to be able to accommodate and receive these things more and more… So, moving to Paris is a way of being in a position to be affected by more things, more colours, more shapes, more theories, more ideas, because I know I am going to need all these in my work later. When I was ‘The Wizard’ and DJ-ing in Detroit, there was an early period of time where people were like ‘I heard about this guy. Let’s go listen to him to see if he is all what they say’. So, I convinced them …When I came to Europe, it was the same thing. About Buster Keaton with MK2, I told them: “Listen, I’ve got this machine, I can do this with that machine and with these films……..give me a chance to show you”. This machine was a pioneer DVJ-1000 DVD Player. I had become knowledgeable with the technology a little bit before they [Pioneer] made it official. I got a hold of the sample machine to fool around with and, of course, I was fooling around with videos and films I had around in my studio. I realised that I could create a more artistic type of expression with this particular machine by capturing frames that often go unnoticed by the viewer. I needed people to see this…. Then, people from MK2 came up with this idea about Buster Keaton so I made an example with it and they said “ok, let’s make this project, using these remixes of the film and you can rescore this film”.
Within this process, how important was the project you showed as part of the exhibition “Futurisme, une Avant Garde explosive” at the Centre Pompidou in 2008?
I did lots of research. I bought lots of books and I studied what was the most significant points, what were the futurists really tried to say. A lot of the things that I did for that installation were for the very first time, like working with dancers, having a choreographer, creating a dance piece that was based on still images, and also using films in a very experimental way. What I am trying to say is that I had little idea of what the outcome was going to be. We got it up and I think it worked. I’d never created a three screen installation before. I’m a DJ by trade, so I had to use that as a ruler. Getting people into a space, what is going to grab their attention? What should be on each of the screens and when? I tried to imagine where the people would stand, where they would sit… what images would look interesting from a perspective as opposed to viewing from the middle of the room or watching straight ahead…. There were very little films from the Futurist era, so I was dealing with lots of still images. How could I make these still images come to life…? By using a collage of images and mixing the video in between, it made everything work.
Let’s go back to the exhibition “Josephine: Something else” in the project room of the gallery. You said the piece “How to” was very important for you…
Yes. At first, it was just an idea, but when the books came back from the manufacturer, I opened the box and I put them in front of me. I then realized what I had just done. It was kind of strange, creepy even, because if someone had done that to me…what would these ten books be? What would be my logo, my titles, my subtitles, my colour, what would be in the front? It is kind of disturbing, if you take anyone’s life and try to summarize it…
There is something kind of spiritual about these books and something strangely reflective, even on me as an artist in the process of working. I thought about what chapter of my life I would be at……..?
Memory is the most important thing. That is what I need from people; I need people to remember it. For instance, with the books “How to”, what I am looking at is someone who lived a colourful life — focusing on various points in her life. With the subtitle “How to” I am saying to the viewer that you, at some point of your life, you may have a wild animal that you may want to walk around the streets of Paris and this chapter of Josephine’s life really relates to you. Or if you are multi-racial person and you are born into a situation where you are kind of confused between being black or white, or Algerian or French, or whatever…Josephine Baker was half German half Afro-American, that chapter relates to you. So that particular piece of the collection can really reach out to everyone. The “Totem Pole” “symbolizes the nine main animals from Native American folklore and tradition that every person walks through life with. Each person carries the character of nine animals throughout their lives. At certain points in our lives, the character of these animals come out and assist us in dealing with situations. This is what the “Totem Pole” is. The Wings symbolises the point when you are going to spiritually elevate; basically you are going to understand what life is all about. And then you have a little bit of life left……..!.
This exhibition is a public showing, which is great. The people have the opportunity to come and see… And to understand how another artist who is following a generation after views an artist’s life.
Journalists very often solicit you. Is there a question you would like them to ask you?
Yes, I do. It is a very simple question and it is a very simple answer too, but I am never being asked this question. The question is: Is it difficult to do what I do? Because, especially in the world we live in, you have to face so many critics and people who need to judge… The answer is that it depends on why you are doing it the first place. For me, I realized about fifteen years ago that in the end, it is not really about money, I can do other things for money, it is not about being popular I can do other things to be popular if that was the point. What I am the most attracted in is that there is an opportunity to be able to bring an idea to someone, that person might carry this idea for the rest of their life and it might help them. It might make them understand something at a very crucial point, consciously or subconsciously…… At some point in your life learning decreases by a large amount and you are stuck with the knowledge that you have and it becomes time to pass it on… I can bring things to people that might be important at some point. It is not difficult because I know what my objective is. It is clear, and it has nothing to do with if I am popular today, or tomorrow, or if the party was good tonight and was not good the other night. Everyone is living constantly at the same time, so there is never a bad time. We are never late.
That’s about it…Just keep an open mind.