Interview with Shaun Roberts
Slam got to chance to talk recently with director Shaun Roberts in Melbourne where he was promoting the Australian release of his 2006 DVD ‘The Run Up’(screening this Saturday at Fed Square). Clocking in at four hours, The Run Up, which Shaun made in conjunction with Upper Playground (he’d worked previously with UP producing ‘Dithers’), is a landmark release. It’s an artistic who’s who of street culture today. We got taking about the film, the people and stories behind it, before moving on to the relationship between art and mass commercial media. It’s an interesting, wide ranging discussion, with a peek over the horizon at some of Shaun’s future solo works, including a new project with Upper Playground that’s planned for the coming year.
The Run Up goes for 4 hours. It’s a massive undertaking with a definitive scope. When did you know that you had enough- that it was finally complete?
About halfway through the process we finished shooting like all the cats that were either based in LA or the West Coast, or people who worked elsewhere who came to show at Upper Playground’s Fifty24SF Gallery. People like Mr Jago, Will Barras. They’re out of London but they came out to San Francisco to show, so we took the opportunity to interview them right there. About halfway through the production we thought, ‘Hmmm, we still don’t have enough’. We always had the standard of ‘Dithers’ there to kind of meet and surpass. We definitely had to surpass it at least in production quality but hopefully in volume too. So, Upper Playground reached out to a filmmaker in NY. His name is Joey Garfield, and he’s pretty accomplished. He was part of the Barnstormers Collective back in the day, and he had a lot of great connections to New York artists and cats. So we said, ‘Hey lets bring Joey on and make it a lot more people’. I mean we had Futura and that already, ‘But Joey can get us like Doze Green and Jose Parla and Maya Hayuk’. And they’re all kind of his friends from Barnstormers. So it was perfect. ‘Cool, cool, cool, we’ll bring him on as a co producer, co-director type’. I was all gun-ho and enthusiastic and like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it‘. Until I realised, ‘Oh wait a minute, he’s just going to send me raw tape so I’m going to have to build all this stuff by myself’. Caught up in the moment, but I think it was a really good thing in the long run. Like I said, I’m a masochist. I said, ‘Yes, I’ll do it’. And it was great. I’m really proud of the stuff.
When you look back at it, putting aside that a lot of these artists know each other and that’s how it all stuck, what do you pull out as being the things that unify all these different people? What is it about all of these very individual people that actually makes them fit and compliment each other within the same film?
That’s exactly it. They’re very individual people. But also I think they all had their start in some form on the street. Be it like Estevan who still shoots street photography and stuff like that. You know? Or Swoon works on the streets. So I think there’s that, but also there’s this overall spirit of being kind of rebellious or breaking the mould or being original or not following anybody that everyone exhibits in the film. And that’s what we really loved about it when we were looking for the people. And some are pure legends. Like Futura. Who wouldn’t want to interview Lenny, you know? Who wouldn’t want to interview Doze or hang out with him for a few days. So some were no brainers. Some were very compelling; their work was extremely compelling. It was a balance between the two. We tried to get legendary artists who were kind of the big-draw names. But also artists who are still coming up. The mix is good. It’s like any good group show. You have a good draw, big name for the marquee. Bit then you surprise people with all these other great artists that may not be as well known. But now they’re crazy known. Almost all the people on the disc now are pretty well known. I credit Upper Playground; Matt the Executive Producer. He’s got such a good sense of who’ll be the next best thing, or who’se got really interesting work. It’s been an education for me, ever since I started doing Dithers which was five years ago.
Were there any names you heard during the filming of this production that you didn’t get a chance to get round too? Any up and coming names that you had your eye on who just missed out?
For sure. The whole time we were down and producing in LA we were like, ‘We got to get Saber’. We never got Saber in time. So that was a real pity. I’ve been trying to chase Banksy down the whole time, but who can get Banksy?Ã¯Â¿Â½ That would have been my dream if we could get an interview with him. So there are those things. Neckface- we were going to do a collaboration interview with Neckface and… not Dalek… the other guy! I’m slipping! But yeah, Neck was another guy we were interested in but it kind of fell through.
Here’s kind of a lesser-known person. Very interesting, and we had shot the interview but the story just didn’t have the right cohesion, so I’m super apologetic every time I think about her. She’s a writer out from LA called Tribe, Lady Tribe. She does DJ stuff too. She goes by DJ Lady Tribe. She was referred to us by Estevan Oriole and Mr Cartoon as being, ‘Oh, she gets up, she’s hardcore’. And she was really interesting but we just couldn’t get a cohesive story together. So unfortunately we didn’t meet the mark. I didn’t meet the mark. Her interview was fine, I just couldn’t… sometimes it just doesn’t happen you know? And we didn’t just want some shit to go to press, so we cut it. And it was unfortunate that Tribe, a five foot two something girl… very tiny. Petite. She’s up there doing rooftops and climbing scaffolding. Amazing shots. If you look her up, Google her, she’s up there. But yeah she had a compelling story too, being like arrested, and threatened with getting deported…good stories.
Did any of the stories surprise you? Were any of the artists, even those who you thought you knew a bit about because they’re up there, make you think twice? Who came out and made you think about them in a completely new light?
Well one of my favourites was Herbert Baglione. Herbert’s amazing. Like I didn’t know anything about his work when I was first introduced to him. He’s like a kindred spirit. We hung out and there’s this slight language barrier, because he speaks Portugese, mostly, out of Sao Paulo, so.. He just seems like an old soul. Very calm. Very deep. And I think it shows in the clip, like, I put my heart and soul into that piece anad really liked it. It was just such a refreshing surprise to see an artist with zero ego- most of these people have zero ego- but very humble and completely focussed on what he’s doing. Shutting out all the trappings and politicking, the, ‘Will they like my stuff?’ or whatever. He’s just doing it to do it. He’s compelled to do it.
What were the things you learnt?Ã¯Â¿Â½ You talked about being inspired or opened up by the way he did his thing. When you see all these people, doing it, living the way they want to, did you come across a moment when something said or something you saw changed the way you approach your own art?
Change my attitude?
Your attitude to what you do, or reset goals…
You know what’s really cool, it’s like, all the little beautiful nuggets of wisdom that all these artists dropped on us when we were producing this or while I was editing this, every single bit, it didn’t really surprise me…. Actually, what surprised me was that everything they said just reaffirmed thatÃ¯Â¿Â½ it’s about being compelled to make things, or having the passion or determination, or the persistence… There’s always this constant theme. Everybody says, ‘Be persistent’, you know? If you really love what you do, it doesn’t matter what people think about it or anything. Just persist. If you have that thing inside you that just compels you to make things, to work, then keep going. And so everything, as I was editing it, listening to all the beautiful things they were saying, it just reaffirmed. It inspired me.
I remember this one cut out from the edit. It was unfortunate, but there was just nowhere to put it in. Like someday, five years on, if we ever do a deluxe version with super-bonus-extras, I’ll put all this stuff in because there’s this amazing thing that Ryan McGinness said, and at first I thought, ‘Oh, that’s kind of harsh!’ because it’s so blunt and so true. He said, “People always ask me, ‘How do I be an artist’, or ‘Should I become an artist, should I go to art school…’, and Ryan says, ‘If you have to ask that of yourself, well don’t’. It’s probably going to be a horrible way of life for you if you think about it. Because for all artists, you don’t have to ask that. You just do it. Otherwise it’s uncomfortable if you’re not doing anything. ‘Don’t be an artist if you have to ask’, which I first thought was kind of harsh, but it’s true.
When did you know that you waned to be an artist?
Well, it’s very nice that you should say that… I don’t know if I’m an ‘artist’ artist. I just do things.
But it’s a creative way of life that you lead.
Ok, yeah, I definitely agree with that. When did I decide? Probably some time in high school. I went to an International School in Bangkok, and I wasn’t very social back then. I kept to myself. Very introverted. My kind of outlet was to do airbrushing. Very influenced back then by H.R. Giger, Alien designs and all that. And Giger was kind of this modern, surrealist guy. ‘What’s up with surrealism?’ So I got into Dali, started my little art history personal education from then on. And the art room for me was always a retreat. Could throw on some Aphex Twin, zone out and paint. I dropped the painting after a while, and was really into computing too. I decided to go to art school just on a whim. Back then, even when I was nine years old, I didn’t know that I wanted to be an artist and lead a creative lifestyle, I just knew that I didn’t want to be anything else! I didn’t know that art was a career path. It was so murky for me. Yeah, you just do it, you know? And it’s distilled down now: It’s not really film making, it’s not really photography; it’s not really any of those mediums that I do. It’s more just making images, telling stories, no matter how you do it. Visually. With audio. Aurally, or anything like that. Didn’t expect to be an artist… just happy I love what I do now. Happy I’ve found that kind of hunger, and I hope I’ll always be hungry…
What are you hungry for now?
Pictures. Compelling images. Adequate images that communicate.
Adequate images? What’s an inadequate image?
Everything you see on television, mostly. Corporate imagery. Inadequate.
And why is that?
It’s manipulative, and usually very base in terms of its message. One layer only. There’s no kind of thinking process that’s demanded from the viewer. So you kind of become a vegetable and only receive. That’s what I love so much about street art: It demands interaction. It demands your eye to read, to decode, to appreciate, to take time. So I’m slowly transitioning from video to still photography a lot more now. Not that I’ve abandoned video at all, because I love motion picture, it’s its own language. I’ve just been interested a lot more in the language of still images, because it forces you to tell stories in singular moments in time, and try to tell as much or half as much information in that frame as a one minute clip.
Do you think that’s a dying skill? The ability to say more with less.
Attention spans are dying. Maybe creators are compelled to serve that demand to make money or something like that. So like, ‘Fast cut music videos are hot or in demand so I’ll make more of that’.
Could it possibly be just a case where people have seen so much? People’s appreciation of art history today, in terms of being familiar with artistic images, is probably greater now than in any stage in human history. Even though they may be desensitised by a lot of what they see, digital media has allowed them to see so much more than any generation before them could.
I think people in our generation, or our age group, peer group, with the net and everything… you can pursue you own interests. Half of me wants to be all idealistic and think like, ‘Oh well, maybe attention spans are extending, and mass media are loosening their grip on our consciousness’. That’s one side of me that thinks that. The other side of me thinks, ‘Jesus Christ, there’s a lot of stupid shit out there!’
That’s only because there’s a lot of stupid people out there!
Maybe, I mean, the dreamer in me says, ‘No that’s not true, there ought to be a better way, maybe they just haven’t seen it or something like that’. Anyway, it’s not for me to judge. I’m interested in still photography. I’m interested in stretching people’s imaginations and attention spans and patience. That’s what I’e been really interested about. And I’m hoping I’m seeing a trend. One thing that really inspired me, I got a chance to go to see in San Francisco the premiere of Brian Eno’s ’77 Million Paintings’. It’s this generative artwork that he makes, and it’s generative sound mixed with generative visuals, and it goes on forever because the permutations are so multiple, the multitude of permutations are so great that ever time you watch it it’s different. It screens, but it has no set beginning or end time. It’s always changing, it’s this organic motion picture piece. But you go in there, and the thing looks static. ‘What the fuck? It’s supposed to be moving pictures and stuff?’ But you sit there for a while, and you realise that your consciousness and your eyes start to adjust to the speed and the work actually is teaching you to be more patient. And as that happens you see these changes coming much, much faster. It’s all coming in real time at a normal pace. It doesn’t change up tempo or anything. But your consciousness slows down to receive that… the pace of it all, to soak it all in. I love it! And it’s a total stoner piece, they have pillows on the floor, there’s no seating and stuff. That got me thinking. It’s like reading a book versus watching the television in terms of delivering story, telling a story.
Do you think that the internet in a way is a step back to that more static media plane? In the sense that much of it is word based. It’s not like TV where people chatter and images are shot at you from a bazooka. Even though there’s online video, animation, colour and movement, most online content involves literally flipping through pages. Sort of a return to the written word.
Perhaps. It’s a really interesting paradox I think. I think about this a lot. Yes you have that kind of demand on your patience if you’re reading a good article or a good blog post. But then again, have you been to Digg.com? Have you read the comments on that stuff? Yes it goes back to a word place, and yes you can take your time, and yes there are places on the net for that type of discussion or uptake of information. But, it’s the same type of signal to noise ratio. It’s so out of whack on the internet because there’s so much noise and so little signal out there. So I compare that to broadcast and TV. At least internet users have a choice…
And it’s largely a free choice, costwise.
That’s right. At least it’s not pushed in your face. You have to ask for it. You have to go to Digg. If you wanted to go to the McDonald’s website you can do that too. I don’t know why, but you can.
In a way television’s a choice too. After all, you’ve got to choose when or if you want to turn it on.
You do, but I don’t feel it’s as much choice. So yeah, it’s just different. I’m no expert as you can tell. But I find it way more interesting than television. And it’s funny, becauseÃ¯Â¿Â½ I had aspirations to be this or that filmmaker when I was younger, that’s before I came to America to study art….
And when was that?
1999 was when it started. And after about three years of living there I became sadly extremely cynical and jaded in a way. About media. And about the Hollywood system. Television and celebrity and all that. It’s so much noise to me. I don’t know why. I don’t know what turned in me, but that need to work in Hollywood or a big studio died. Doesn’t interest me at all.
Thinking of it this way, more on a one-to-one level. When you talk about noise and meaningless messages, how many of people’s daily social interactions are truly meaningful? How many have real deep substance, rather than just being the reverberation of our own internal noise, be that noise anxiety, fear, pride, or just looking good; self-aggrandisement. It seems to me that perhaps the media just amplifies this, the background noise that’s always part of the way we live?
Perhaps. Yeah, that’s a good point. But how come there are those extraordinary cases where artists do their own thing? What compels Swoon to post her pieces?
Maybe it’s because they are an extraordinary case.
Perhaps they are, but that’s what interests me. That’s what gives me hope. And I wish that more people took more risks and went outdoors and turned off their TVs and made their own thing.
And it’s good to have something like The Run Up, or any document where artists can actually speak for themselves, and you can see that they’re living in the same world with the same problems, and relating to people in ways that we too can adopt. And that’s inspiring.
Yeah. And the thing that I was really psyched about doing The Run Up- it’s completely all in their own words. There’s no narration, there’s no off camera guy going, ‘And he’s worked in this studio for 20 years…’
Anything other then their words is just noise. It’s unnecessary elaboration.
Yeah. It’s straight, direct, hopefully communicative. My job on that was to accentuate everybody’s personality or to bring out the emotional content in their work in some way.Ã¯Â¿Â½ But I’m not there. I don’t want to have any hand or authorship in this. It’s not about me. I’m happy that my name’s on the cover with Joey’s, it’s kind of like ‘oh cool, validation. We did that!’. But it’s not a Shaun Roberts Joey Garfield kind of thing. It’s by us. But it’s all about them. I love that, and that’s how it should be. I want everyone’s voices to be distinct. And that’s why we chose the vignette structure. Suits DVD anyway. Hard to screen all at once, but that’s a conscious decision.
So what else are you working on? Triple Wide- what’s your involvement in that, and what’s the result?
Triple Wide is something I came up with two friends of mine, Alexander Tarrant and Jason Bass, better known as ‘JB’ of JB Classics. Started this little collective together when we initially won an award for a DVD we put in an Adobe design competition. They flew us to NY and we thought, ‘Oh shit! Let’s do some networking, let’s do some business cards’… so yeah, that’s how Triple Wide came about. Everyone did their own thing but I kept the name alive. Jason and I collaborate together on the JB Classics viral videos to promote his sneakers, and we do that under Triple Wide, and I freelance under that… it’s an everything goes thing. Motion graphics, we come up with ideas, installations, projections, anything I want to do.
Also working on a lot of still photography. Hopefully having a solo show in San Francisco of my still photography in late January, early February sometime in ’08. So I’m really excited about that. Babylon Falling’s going to present it. Won’t be at the store but in a gallery in the area.
I’ve also been working with Babylon Falling, this local revolutionary… well, not revolutionary… It’sÃ¯Â¿Â½ a very good bookstore. Anyway, I’m sure Sean the owner has a line for it, we’ll let him figure it out. Always a mouthful to describe his store. But I’m working with them to do a series of artist studio visits, and it’s kind of like The Run Up, but only in still photography and audio. I’m really interested in doing that, because what surprises me is that it’s as immersive as watching a video piece sometimes, you know, if crafted correctly. I’ve really enjoyed creating sound design and stuff like that and all those editing tricks and techniques that I’ve learnt doing The Run Up directly apply to doing these slideshows. And these are available online exclusively through the Babylon Falling website.
Other than that there’s so many things going on. I’m here in Melbourne, but I was in Cambodia recently shooting. I’m working on a photo essay there. One thing that struck me the most about Cambodia is that there are so many children there. Everywhere you look on the streets there are babies or children under four yours old. And I came to find out that that’s a direct social reaction to all the killing and all the war that was caused by the Khmer Rouge ten or so years ago. So I’m working on a photo essay on the children after the fall. There’s like, an amazing innocent quality to them. They’re poor as hell, but they’re happy, innocent, like real kids. In contrast to what Western culture imposes on our kids these days. Like they need Barbie dolls, GI Joes… I’m kind of out of touch! But like we need frickin’ vinyl toys, you know? But, I saw kids there literally making castles out of mud. And like, wow, happiness is so relative over there.
So I’m working on three simultaneous photo essays that I’m putting out. The big thing next year is that I’ll be working nearly full time for Upper Playground on their online video wing. I’ll be co-producing a lot of their stories for that. This is just coming out now, there’s been no press or publicity for it. It’s going to happen, and it’s called ‘Walrus TV’, and hopefully it will see me flying around the world making Run Up type stories, but not just on artists. We want to do politics, music, anything of general interest. There’s going to be a lot of stuff, because I’m not going to be the sole producer. My side of the stuff is going to be more journalistic, investigative. Hopefully people will be interested in that. Not that we won’t have kind on interestingly Jackass-ish stunts available. Watch Jeremy Fish get kicked in the balls! Not really, just kidding Jeremy. Yeah, it’s going to be really exciting. Don’t quote me, but we’re looking to launch in July. There’s going to be a hell of a lot of work, starting production in earnest in March.
Check out Shaun’s studio tour slideshows for Babylon Falling here. You can also visit his flickr site to get more of a taste of his photographic work. If you’re in Melbourne Saturday, Dec 22, be sure to check out a special public screening of selected exerpts from the Run Up at Fed Square. DJ’s are Sneaker Freaker’s own Mafia and Hans DC who start from 6pm.