Please listen to the entire interview here.
Clayton Cubitt (whose father is Canadian, not his mother, as was reported) is a photographer, videographer, and writer perhaps best known for his work with Nerve magazine and his Operation Eden. He's also pithy. When speaking about online personal privacy, for instance (a notion he describes as both "quaint" and "obsolete"), in comparison to corporate communications, he says:
"I think a corporation is a beautiful thing to look at. I think it's like a great white shark--it's something you have to admire for its primal, evolutionary deadliness."
And when speaking about the harmony he creates in his work by balancing radically different esthetics, he says "The source of life, for me, is the simultaneous existence of both the tragic and the sublime. I think the two can't exist without each other, and that informs all of my work."
So it was an occasionally uncomfortable, eye-opening experience speaking with him about his work, which documents clashing cultures and challenges common definitions of art. Most people dismiss something as 'art' when it's too out-there. In Cubitt's case, though, many dismiss his work as not-art because they do get it--or they get the surface, anyway. But hiding under the in-your-face is much measured contemplation, so our conversation did not go as I'd expected.
We started by discussing Lagos Calling, his re-imagining of skinhead culture as if it had emerged in Nigeria, instead of working-class England (the project was also, incidentally, the inspiration for Gnarls Barkley's video for "Going On"). Naturally, in a conversation about cultural cross-pollination, M.I.A. came up, as did Die Antwoord. If you want to talk about tragedy and the sublime, or a hyper-glossy truly refined presentation of gritty material, they are it. And if you've never checked out any of their stuff, 1) don't do it at work, 2) hold on tight, and 3) watch this, too. They've come a long way from this.
When I first saw the video for "Enter the Ninja," the graphics made me think of a Keith Haring work, just with less sunshine. Cubitt corrected me, saying it's more in the tradition of Roger Ballen; Roger Ballen's photography (which can also be accessed here) makes me think of Diane Arbus' work, and her name alone is enough to remind me of the cover of a great album from back in the day (which the band plagiarized), but I digress--the interview is edited for concision.
All of this to say Cubitt has great ability (as a result of a long steeping in this idea) to convey a subject's deeper meaning using photography, which is, necessarily, a superficial medium. Portraits are decreasingly conveying character or identity, Cubitt has argued, because people are growing increasingly sophisticated at projecting their personal brands in photography. With Facebook and Instagram etc., most of us have favourite poses, expressions, camera-angles, and even locations for images of ourselves, which is great in that it raises the general esthetic sensibilities of the population, but it confounds the communication of deeper meaning.
Building on Andy Warhol's Screen Tests, which are essentially moving-picture portraits (rather than stills) intended to capture more of the subject's personality, he's experimented with a number of novel means of penetrating our outer gloss. From his own Long Portraits to the Hysterical Literature project, which is illuminating and very well documented--I'd suggest giving yourself ample some time to explore that link (and again: best not done at work)--Cubitt explodes the traditional intellectual limitations of photography and videography.
I asked him about what role he understands consent to play in these pieces, but I don't think I asked the question properly. I'm still curious about the role agency plays in the self-discovery his subjects report as a result of being rendered hysterically illiterate. Do we need to choose to participate, choose to submit to the experience in order to gain enlightenment? Or could the physicality of our intellectual existence be impressed upon us by another? Dalton Trumbo gave thought to the subject, but I'm less keen to be his guinea pig.
Many thanks to CIUT for airing the interview!