Still from Tannhäuser Gate (not really now not anymore), HD video, 17:18, 2017.
Rustan Söderling started making videos by appropriating found footage as a way to document his interests and readings.
Today, his video works can take up to a year to produce and are the result of a complex technical process that uses video game software to combine camera footage with 3D scanning. Söderling developed a passion for storytelling and world-building, for which he constantly draws inspiration from philosophy and science fiction. The characters inhabiting the narratives he creates are often faced with puzzling situations or ambiguous contexts that rapidly alternate between different temporalities and locations.
In this conversation for Living Content, we talk about the underlying interests that drive his work: the evolution of human culture, and his engagement with strategies of world-building.
This interview was conducted by Adriana Blidaru. Adriana is an independent curator and writer, and founding editor of LC.
Living Content: To start off, given that we’re still at the beginning of a new decade, can you tell me about some of your major stepping stones in your practice that got you where you are today?
Rustan Söderling: When I first attended art school in Gothenburg in my late teens, we had this open video assignment which basically went: “try making an art video”. I ended up making four or five of them because I just found it so rewarding that I couldn’t really stop. I put up makeshift green screens in my apartment and learned how to animate things quite quickly. After finishing art school, I moved to Amsterdam to study graphic design which eventually led me to stop making video work altogether. But years later, after slowly coming to the realization that design wasn’t my cup of tea, I began making videos on the side again, as a kind of visual outlet for the things I was reading and thinking about. While graphic design was all about compromise and precision, the video work didn’t have to conform to the whims of a client or to some grander commercial logic. In graphic design I also found it boring to work with other people’s material but when making videos, appropriation came in handy; I had no issues sampling or collaging found material, and for a long time I worked mostly with found footage. It wasn’t until I made Eternal September that I actually produced something from scratch, and even that samples so much stuff that it could be considered a narrative assemblage. From that point on, most of my work has been either entirely animated or has been applying CGI in some manner.
LC: In your work, you often depict a sort of dystopian future; a post-human environment. Can you give some context to this?
RS: I don’t really consider the work to be explicitly set in the future. I avoid using allusions to anything that couldn’t really exist in a contemporary setting. I prefer to think of the time period as ambiguous: maybe it’s the future, maybe it’s the past, or maybe it’s a separate timeline from ours. I try to conjure up notions of a murky past bleeding into the present or give a glimpse of a potentially disastrous future, but also to imply a circular idea of temporality. Very similar to the feeling of deep timelessness that often makes itself known in nature; where you sometimes feel like nothing really ever changes. When walking through a forest, we step on multiple layers of dead things in various stages of decomposition. This dead matter nourishes the living things growing and thriving above ground, who themselves will join the perpetual circle of death and rebirth. To me, this is equally present in human culture where the same inventions, questions, and desires that drove our ancient ancestors, are still with us today, albeit with a more high tech coating. We are all contributors to our vast collective memory depository. Where trees grow from the dead leaves of last Summer, we raise cathedrals from the bones of our great grandparents.
LC: You mention nature – this was my next question: what about the role of nature in this setting in relation to the human?
RS: I think that ever since our ancestors went from worshiping natural temples and outcrops, and began erecting their own stone monuments, there has been this sense of a disconnect between humanity and nature. Since then, nature has taken on both a benevolent and malevolent role in society, both a healer and a killer. Mushroom picking could provide a delicious dinner but eat the wrong one and you could either enter another dimension or die in horrible cramps. Now we are more aware of our own impact on nature through Global Warming, and we are slowly coming to recognize that we are not separate from it after all. While we thought we were “killing Mother Earth”, we were actually committing suicide. In fact – in relation to everything that concerns us – the word nature is redundant since our placement outside of its domain was purely a hubristic imaginary construct. We – humanity and its inventions – are nature just as much as a rabbit or an oak tree. We infuse nature with so much meaning and righteousness that we forget that it doesn’t care about us; we are simply a species gaming the ecosystem. I think that this idea of the planet being neither evil nor good, but rather an indifferent rock in space, seeps into almost everything I do.
LC: I want to ask you about a few things that are recurrent in your work. For instance, I noticed that one consistent theme is water (it appears as the main actor in Eternal September, but it is also a strong presence in most of your other works like Sandy Mouth, Let Me Speak to the Driver, etc.). Can you tell me more about this?
RS: Water is the universal connector and a necessity for life, but also works great as a metaphor for connectivity in society. Which is why I think we still (although maybe less than we used to) say things like “surfing the web”, and perhaps why many illegal online activities come with the word “pirate” attached to them. 71 percent of the planet is water, and 60 percent of the human body is water. Water is used to cool down the servers that connect our devices around the Earth, but a drop of water in the wrong spot can also wipe out almost any device. Personally, I grew up close to the ocean and have a real love for it, but it also terrifies me to swim in the open water. I remember that the islands around me are tips of mountains in a vast, invisible valley, and I’m simply floating hundreds of meters above ground, with myriads of creatures below me waiting to drag me down into the deep.
LC: What about this recurring image of ‘a screen on a screen’, that creates an effect of reflection?
RS: In my room, right now, I have four screens, five, if I include the projector, and they are all connected to each other somehow. It’s something that is so ubiquitous in daily life that it’s hard not to include in some capacity. Screens function like portals to other worlds, and I think they can be used to simultaneously emphasize that the viewer is looking at a screen within a screen, and to forget that what they see actually takes place on a screen. I also try to use the screens as conduits of memory, or as a voice from another place; a kind of ghostly channel. Sometimes they are simply useful as a means to provide context or exposition.
LC: A lot of the times the viewer is experiencing the work through a first-person narrative: through the character’s eyes. A point of view that, also in relation to the medium of the work, clearly references video games. Can you tell me why you prefer this perspective, and what is it that you want to achieve through it?
RS: My use of POV has become a natural way to navigate the narrative. In the software I use, the user always navigates in first person, so, for me, it is natural to think of these environments in this way.
However, I always try to imagine who is behind the camera and what their role is in the work. In Eternal September, I emphasize the POV angle by having eyelids opening and closing, and in Tannhäuser Gate, there are drops of water pouring down the screen indicating there is some glass barrier or lens between the observer and the perceived environment. In Let Me Speak To The Driver, the camera jumps back and forth between first and third person, but when we are inside the POV of the main character, the screen has smudges and fingerprints on it. I haven’t played video games since my teens but I imagine that first-person video games aim towards the same kind of immersion that I do; through the same use of perspective.
LC: What is the process behind creating such technically savvy videos? Do you script your work at all?
RS: I would say none of it is scripted in a classical sense, but I make a lot of notes and quick drawings of scenes on papers, post its, and envelopes. I also keep a running text file where I copy-paste things that relate to the project I’m doing. Each work consists more of a visual and textual mind map than a tightly composed narrative. It’s similar to the technique of World Building, used in the realm of Fantasy or Science-Fiction: you create a set of boundaries and rules for the world you want to set your story in, and then, you see what takes place within it.
It’s kind of a dumb way of working since it’s very inefficient and I end up throwing lots of work away in the editing process. I would really like to be able to write a tight script and stick to it, but I also think I would end up pulling my hair out if there was no room at all for improvisation. Especially if it’s a project that might take a year to produce; you easily end up feeling like a cog in your own machinery.
Each project also involves a lot of fieldwork because I need to scan environments and assets. These excursions themselves become a sort of mind-mapping exercise, where I try to imagine what assets or props I need for the setting and what story can take place through that setting. It’s a bit like singling out a chunk of reality, and then cutting and pasting it together with another chunk.
Lately, instead of scanning the environment, I’ve been filming it. Later, I manipulate the footage through editing, audio recordings, and 3D composites. This allows me to infuse unpredictability into the work, to improvise a loose narrative on the spot and involve people and situations outside my control. I first tried this in the video SandyMouth, where vacation footage from a day spent boogie boarding on the beach with friends is later fictionalized into a short film about the discovery of a beached whale. I scanned the whale earlier in the summer at the Gothenburg Museum of Natural History with no real purpose in mind. But after fermenting in my mind for a couple of weeks, it found its place on that beach.
LC: I love Let Me Speak to the Driver, where the main character keeps waking up in the same post-apocalyptic environment. It’s not entirely clear if it’s a dream, if it’s reality, if he is controlling his environment, or if someone else is. His many “awakenings” distort any sense of temporality. When we last talked, you mentioned the inspiration that you found in the movie Stalker by Tarkovsky for this specific work.
RS: The title functions as an allusion to the helplessness of the main character, and perhaps as a mantra echoing inside his head. Is he in control of his environment or the time he spends in it? It’s implied, through his meetings with various doppelgängers, that he might just be a link in a chain. That he is repeating a sort of endless pattern, like a vinyl record stuck in the same groove. One aspect of Stalker that is consciously referenced in Let Me Speak To The Driver is how the main characters navigate their environment through a kind of reading or decoding of the landscape. The stalker throws metal bolts to figure out which path is safe, while my hazmat clad man touches and almost sensually caresses the environment in order to understand or feel closer to it, even though it is clearly dangerous and toxic in some sense. I tried to convey the same almost spiritual sentiment that the stalker has towards the Zone in a scene where the hazmat man sacrifices himself by inhaling the toxic fumes coming out of the earth. After that, he kind of becomes possessed by the landscape itself, and the narrative becomes a lot more disjointed and surreal.
LC: I guess this is when the sense of temporality gets distorted and the logic of linearity completely dissipates into science-fiction.
RS: In most of my video work, I try to invoke a distortion of time. Sometimes the main character literally jumps through space and time, as if he has come unstuck from his timeline somehow.
The videos use a lot of anachronisms: ancient artifacts pop up in the modern day or a supermarket appears inside an ancient temple. Often, objects act as tethers to the past and the future, they persist through time, and they are shown as having known many different hands and uses.
In The Culture Bunker, the main character stumbles into an archeological dig with graves of unknown origin. As he tries to make sense of this, and to document the surroundings, his prodding somehow awakens or activates past ghosts. While filming this, I had just read an article about the discovery of Richard the Third’s remains under a parking lot in Leicester. It made me think of this near-mythical king buried just meters below the wheels of some Ford Focus, and how the mixture between the sacred and the mundane oozes all around us.
LC: Interesting how you mention the sacred and the mundane being interlaced and everywhere around us. You often create assemblages in your environments that remind me very much of sacred objects, but all of them are made out of debris or found objects – nothing precious-looking – just things carefully scraped together. If you would decide to transpose them in reality, they could function like real sculptures in an exhibition space. Have you ever felt the desire to make them IRL?
RS: I often get asked why I don’t produce these sculptures “for real,” or rather I get told that I should make them, implying they would somehow gain value through having a physical presence. I don’t see myself as a sculptor in that sense but rather as a prop maker. I only make things by proxy. Everything made for the scenery of the videos is made through the filter of World-Building; I am not the maker of these artifacts. The character who is living in this make-belief world is. To me, it’s essential that the objects inhabit their scenery, that they have a past and patina. The sculptures are most often built for a purpose other than merely being aesthetically pleasing. Some of them function as ornamental machines, some have a ritualistic/religious application, and some simply function as landmarks or trailer markers. Often, I make use of an everyday object (a shopping cart or a cat tree) and try to imagine how it can be repurposed, through the mind of someone unfamiliar to its original usage. I toyed with the idea of making the props physical in Let Me Speak To The Driver – where some of them turn up in intervals, as what appears to be 3D printed versions of the originals. That was meant as almost a meta-commentary on the supposed realness of the things themselves: do they in fact exist as physical matter? In these scenes, I also put sounds of crowds in the background to imply a kind of connection to the outside “real” world. Alban Schelbert (the sound designer I work with sometimes) composed a set of eerie jingles that, we hoped, would put these objects in an almost commercial context, like little collectables. However, although I think the props could possibly function separately from their environment (stripped from their narrative purpose and re-rendered as sculptures), I don’t really want to make these objects IRL. To me, they already exist in real life, they simply occupy a virtual and, in a sense, imaginary space that can only be accessed through the magic portal of a screen. It’s no space really, but it is real.
LC: What should one read (or watch) to gain deeper access to your work?
RS: The initial trigger for Let Me Speak To The Driver was an essay by Eliot Weinberger, which gave me the idea of an anthropological expedition through a constructed landscape. I very much enjoy his strange mixture of informative prose. I also read a lot of turn-of-the-century horror focusing on nature by Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and H.P. Lovecraft. The early seasons of the TV show Lost was also an inspiration of sorts, I really appreciated how the writers were so unwilling to provide any closure for the audience but instead kept introducing new mysteries. Another big influence is the novel Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz and the way the protagonist desperately tries to form a coherent pattern out of seemingly random events. Also, Thomas Pynchon, William Gibson, Julian Cope, Stewart Lee, Chris Morris, and many others sneak into the work in one way or another, as do a few books by Mark Fisher. But I’m currently reading a travelogue by painter and occultist Ithell Colquhoun called The Living Stones, which concerns her time living in Cornwall, and its many layers of myth and legends.