Omer Fast Interview

This is an interview between curator Petra Heck and Omer Fast via Skype on the 18th of
January, 2011.

Petra Heck Can you elaborate on the starting point for Nostalgia in relation to the the
ambiguous narrative it presents?

Omer Fast Nostalgia starts off with a man who is recalling his childhood in the Niger
Delta. We hear his voice throughout the short clip but watch another man, caucasian and
camouflaged, building a trap in a forest.
The details of the narrator’s story are sketchy and his tone is mute: We learn that he was
orphaned at an early age, that he grew up with relatives under dismal conditions until he
joined a paramilitary militia as a teenager. The most detailed part of the story involves
instructions for constructing a bird trap, which the man learned from an older militiaman
who took care of him. This rather dry tutorial then reappears as a leitmotif in the two
subsequent films that make up the work. It is repeated verbatim by characters in fictional
scenarios that are increasingly stylized. With each repetition, the rationale for the trap
changes as it passes between the different characters. What starts as an obscure set of
instructions gradually becomes a kind of communal recitation, perhaps even a curren-cy
for conveying emotions inside a community.

Petra Heck How do you feel that you can escape the trap in the three parts of Nostalgia?

Omer Fast I don’t think I’m providing an escape. There is no closure, no catharsis, no
promise of a better future in these narratives. Instead you see how one person’s memory
is consumed by a community, which con-tinuously recycles that memory for its own needs.
In a sense, the work is an attempt to present a layered portrait of migration – the migration
of people, of course, but also the migration of information within a society and how that
informs its sense of identity.

Petra Heck Do you consider the approach of working with the facts or information in
relation to narrative different in Nostalgia than it is in The Casting for instance?
And can you explain a little bit about the process of making The Casting?

Omer Fast The Casting is a much more stylized piece. Instead of the conventional
acting that you find in Nostalgia, the storytelling in The Casting is mainly done through
frozen tableaux in which the actors try to hold their poses and freeze for the duration of
each scene. Both works are based on interviews with individuals who recall a traumatic
experience for the camera. But I think The Casting asks you to make a jump from
the big traumatic themes, like violence and regret, and to focus more on the dramatic
interpretation of those themes. And because the actors inevitably fail to keep completely
still for that long, we start noticing a smaller drama being played in their bodies’ betrayal:
They wince and quiver. They tremble and flinch. And it is through their tiny involuntary
movements that we actually get an authentic substitute for the dramatic expressiveness
their roles would have otherwise called for. It is a totally contrived and transparent conceit.
The actors are obviously not statues and the images are obviously not stills. But I think it’s
precisely through the conceit that you get a more subtle and physical portrayal of stress, of
the body resisting an arbitrary order, which is a roundabout way of reconnecting with the
big issues.

Petra Heck Regarding both these pieces, is it important to you where the facts and the
information or the memories come from? Nostalgia is quite a personal story. The Castingalso portrays a personal story and memory, but it is also strongly related to collective
memories about war and so on. Can you tell me more about how you think about that,
since you’ve also worked a lot with these collective historical events?

Omer Fast My subjects’ stories are always on the verge of dispersal, of feeling familiar,
borrowed, anonymous, inauthentic. Their testimonies are always threatened by what’s
already in the public domain – by movies, for example, or newspaper articles. I think that
kind of readymade familiarity is partly our price for being citizens of a media culture. We
do walk around with a repository of images and narratives that we rely on in order to relate
to other people and in order to make sense of the world. I’m highly aware of that anyway.
And in the end it’s a source of tension in the work. I specifically look for subjects that are
inauthentic. Even when it’s a real person discussing a real first-hand experience, that
experience may have been or will be subsumed into a larger public narrative. For example,
I made a work in which people describe their experience in the ghetto in Krakow and in
the concentration camps during World War II. Although these Polish subjects appear to
speak genuinely (that is undramatically) they are actually extras who participated in Steven
Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List. And so you have the problem of an authentic account
told by an eyewitness to a re-enactment. Even more problematically, some of the persons
who appeared in Spielberg’s film actually witnessed the events on which it was based.
Talking to them fifty years after those historic events and ten years after those events
were re-enacted in the same locations, you get a very genuine but highly ambiguous
account in which both event and re-enactment, original and reproduction, move ever
closer until they’re indiscernible. It’s not that you can’t tell the difference between history
and its representation. It’s that once an event moves into the past all you have are

Petra Heck And is it any different in De Grote Boodschap?

Omer Fast I don’t know if it means the same in Dutch as it does in Flemish...

Petra Heck It does.

Omer Fast Good. We won’t go into specifics but the title already suggests that there are
two things happening here, possibly two things that are inseparable. One of them is going
to be a big story, a big and important story, so you better pay attention. And the other one
might be just as important, in fact it’s an everyday calling and totally necessary. But it’s
also a physical act, obviously more vulgar and therefore less public and more symbolic
if we’re going to keep polite company. And although the work does not directly involve
the documentary source that inspired the narrative, the original Grote Boodschapper
as it were, it suffices to say that the narrative again involves a personal memory that
is ‘extracted’ in various scenes by different interrelated characters.

Petra Heck In all the pieces you seem to be looking for a different visual form when
presenting these memories in the narrative form. Are you always looking for a different
form, a different visual form?

Omer Fast I do worry about repeating myself. The challenge of making the work is not
just about locating the stories but also in trying to articulate them in a way that tells you
something about the conditions under which they are being told. Does that make sense?
So with The Casting, for example, I knew I could not tell the story in a way that allowed
the actors to emote, to be expressive, to cry and scream, etc. I don’t have the tools as a
director to pull that off successfully and, perhaps more importantly, that that kind of story
has been told about a million times and the best that I could hope for is that people shed
a tear and say how awful it all is and then go home. And I knew that this is not what I
wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about how we think about such a story in the first
place: What are the possibilities for telling it and perhaps also for remembering it. That’s
how the kind of awkward, frozen staging came about in The Casting. It’s why I often
return to circular narratives or stories that are selfreferential. And instead of making my
life miserable or trying to create some sort of poor-man’s television drama on a shoestring
budget, I prefer to do something different with the time and the money I have.

Petra Heck In your last piece, Talk Show, it almost seems as if there is a sort of working
process that you use a lot in your other work, in the sense of coming from the facts and
memories and reworking these through time and through other people into a different
narrative. It almost seems to be an explanatory piece about your working process and it
also becomes a bit funny in the end. It seems to morph from a very tragic story into quite a
hilarious piece.

Omer Fast There is corruption involved in all of my work and in Talk Show, that corruption
was a live process and very transparent. I often work with actors to realize my projects,
but this was the first time I had a chance to make a work on a stage for a live audience.
And although it would have been natural to write a script that shifts through different
temporalities for example, I thought it would have been totally boring to waste this chance
on something scripted and theatrical. It turned out to be more of a hair-raising, scary
experiment than I bargained for though, and it almost felt like shitting in public. Like you
can come and watch the story being digested and excreted in public! But you’re right –
as a live performance it reflected the kind of process that I undertake with the stories I
gather. Sometimes the results were funny and sometimes they were very uncomfortable.
When it succeeded, the audience was able to witness how a very sad and true story
metamorphoses into a grotesque as it travels from one performer to another.

Petra Heck Yes, it’s like Chinese whispers, the game that children play.

Omer Fast Basically, each evening started with a special guest recalling an event from
his or her life. A performer would also sit on the stage and listen to the story for the first
time, not knowing who the guest was or what the story was about. Then the guest would
leave the stage, another performer would come and the story would be repeated from
memory by the first performer, live, in front of the audience. In total six performers took
part each evening, which guaranteed that the story mutated quite a bit by the time it
reached the last performer. By then, it would really be a grotesque and the last performer

had no idea what the original was. Of course the audience watched the whole thing unfold
and that gave them quite a feeling of power. Of course, there’s pleasure in there too,
the pleasure of corruption. But it’s not only the corruption, but also the responsibility for
what’s happening. After all, the game is not as funny if you don’t know how it started and
if you don’t feel partly responsible for the changes that happen as it’s being played. It’s
a little like what we as a community, as a collective, do when we consume stories and
pass them along. We know we corrupted this person’s story, we did something potentially
unethical by repressing or altering something. But in an ambiguous sense, we sustain
the story. We allow the story to live on and to continue, albeit in a different form, possibly
as a grotesque. And this is an ambiguity that I really like. It’s a kind of pleasure that rubs
against feeling ethically ambivalent about something. A guilty pleasure, I guess.

Petra Heck Yes, I understand. Do you feel a level of responsibility towards each story that
you are working with?

Omer Fast Absolutely. But I have a much heavier sense of responsibility to the work I am
making, which can at times do very unethical things with the material on which it’s based.
In Talk Show the performers knew the piece was based on someone’s life. The person
starting the show was ‘real!’ and his or her story involved personal loss under very charged
circumstances. The material was sensitive and the actors realized that — even when they
got the story a few generations down. Not only that, but the audience was also there,
omniscient and judging, through it all. If the performer pushed the story too far, it had to be
good or else they were booed. And so the actors who appeared had a very contradictory
responsibility which is something I share as an artist: you’re dealing with real sensitive
subject matter. But you also have an obligation to do something good with it. I personally
feel that a work is successful when the shift in criteria becomes palpable.

Petra Heck There was a book published last year, called In Memory by Kunsthaus
Baselland and Hannover Kunstverein. Throughout the book there are footnotes. Some of
these contain ‘fake facts’ about persons discussed in the book, like philosophers and so
on and quoting yourself as well at times. Could you tell me more about this idea.

Omer Fast Initially I didn’t want the contributors to the book to discuss me or my work,
because this often results in a self-congratulatory PR book that does a reasonably
competent but boring job at discussing the work. I thought it would be much more
interesting if I were repressed or just wasn’t in it and they would have to write about
something else. Of course they didn’t follow these instructions, they are too smart to do
that. So some of them ended up writing about me, some chose to talk in circles, a bit like
I do. So, once I had the material, I wondered about what to do with it. It was not exactly
what I hoped it would be. It was not this kind of heroic thing that was all about suppression
and elision and denial – a portrait of the artist as a bagel or a biography without a subject.
So I decided to look at the material that was there and in particular at the persons who
were mentioned. Some of the names I was familiar with and with others I was not. And in
the process of reading about the people whom I wasn’t familiar with, I decided to provide
an annotation to the book, a kind of friendly gesture to an equally ignorant reader, such

as who are these people mentioned, they must be very important. But then I couldn’t stop.
That’s how these partly fictional, sometimes very fictional, sometimes not so fictional notes
crept into the book. And of course, like a cancer, they grew until they threatened to take
over the entire book and turn it into a pretty hefty red paperweight. But it was fun for a
couple of weeks.

Petra Heck And also the title, which I find quite hilarious, In Memory, it’s as if you are dead
and the book has been written in honour of you. How did you come up with that?

Omer Fast The idea was to celebrate the dead artist and to have a type of wake where
people toast to you. I guess what is fascinating about that scenario, is that everyone has
thoughts about who you are as a person, but when the occasion finally comes and you
are gone and you can’t be hurt by what others have to say, people still feel compelled to
sustain an illusion about who the dead person was. Maybe they feel that they have to be
polite and nobody is going to speak their mind at a funeral wake and say what a bastard
the person was or what a manipulative shit he was. David Foster Wallace would have had
lots more to say about this. He was the literary inspiration for the project. Unfortunately he
took his own life. But no, I think the book really does present some sort of compendium,
a reader’s digest of what it is like to do my kind of work. That kind of dance between, lets
say biographical material and invention, the way that it can sometimes become overdone
and the way it sometimes provides an escape and of course the kind of friction that is
generated in between. It’s a little study I suppose, a kind of printed study.

Petra Heck I think of it as another

Omer Fast Yes, maybe, maybe.