Iterations of a General Practitioner: An Interview with Robert Kleyn
Jordan Strom and Robert Kleyn
While there are numerous artists who can claim an admiration, and even passion, for architecture—and even work on a collaborative project or two that involves buildings or vague architectural references—there are few who can say they have worked both as an architect and as an artist in equal measure. Most would advise against such a bifurcation as a “bad” career move. Only truly lapsed (read: renegade) architects can make good artists. In the real world, the accolades of interdisciplinarity meet the chill reality of professional border policing. And, while it has not become uncommon for architects to become filmmakers and vice versa (one thinks of Fritz Lang or Rem Koolhaas), it is rare for these same transmigrationsists to carry forward an artistic practice.
Robert Kleyn has made it his practice to move freely between these fields and others including theatre, film, and critical writing. While it is true that his practice has shifted over the years—he frequently worked in sculpture during the 1980s and architecture more recently—he has not been cowed out of experimenting in a wide variety of forms and media over a period when contemporary art has increasingly demanded that artists scale back on experimentation, stake out micro-territories, and remain there. Over the years he has written numerous critical essays including those on the works of his friends and peers like Ian Wallace, Rodney Graham, and Jeff Wall. Yet, while these artists went on to build successful careers beachcombing the fringes of photography, painting, and film, Kleyn opted for the less lucrative and expanded field of experimental theatre, sculpture, and architecture.
On the occasion of the recent exhibition Inside Out Outside In: Working With Robert Kleyn (2006) at the Belkin Satelite Gallery curated by the Collective for the Advanced and Unified Studies in the Visual Arts (CAUSA)—an exhibition which revisited several of Kleyn’s earlier artworks from the 1970s—Fillip has decided to publish an earlier recorded interview, from November 16, 2004, in which the artist discusses his time in Rome, London, and Vancouver and how his experience in film and architecture has influenced his art practice.
Jordan Strom – The period bridging the late 1960s and the early 1970s proved to be a significant transitional moment in Vancouver art and film history. You were one of the first artists in the city to work between these two worlds, to problematize their separation, and think about their relationship through the medium of photography. How did you come about working in the film industry? I’m thinking specifically of your involvement in projects such as Daniel Mann’s 1975 film Journey Into Fear, and how that experience affected your video and photographic production.
Robert Kleyn – It wasn’t my first film here—maybe my second. I was an architecture student at the University of British Columbia. It was the 1970s, and so I guess it was the beginnings of interdisciplinary work. And because of all the student activism, everything was blown wide open so that the boundaries between the academic disciplines were quite loose. I decided to take film history in the Fine Arts Department. I was also taking courses from the sculptor Tom Burrows and performance/video artist Glenn Toppings, along with my architecture studios and courses. I was very interested in perception and phenomenology.
Strom – How did you enter into the film production world?
Kleyn – I was living in a house on Cartier Street in Vancouver. Tom Burrows was living there when I moved in. It was one of those big old houses that was getting rented out. There was a guy living there as well named Keith Pepper. Keith was a Brit who had been here for some time. He was an actor, but had been working in film as an art director. He was the one who hired me. This was very early on in the film industry here. Only a couple of films had been made here, like Cold Day in the Park (1969) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). Pepper hired me as his assistant. I had been going back and forth to Europe. I’d taken a year off and had worked in England in an architect’s office. I was going to art school at night. I was friends with this intellectual circle there that was also frequented by the early proto-pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi. There were various film people, agents, and writers who were also part of this scene. It was at the tail end of “Swinging London.” The Chelsea Drugstore was still there. I hung out with some Italians who were also part of that. They hooked me up with an architectural firm in Rome. So while I studied architecture at UBC, I was working during the summers in an office in Rome. I had already done some film work here in Vancouver. My real interest in film started here. I was friends with other young artists like Rodney Graham, Ian Wallace, Duane Lunden. Film was part of our vocabulary in terms of rethinking the image. This was during the rule of minimalism. There wasn’t supposed to be anything imagistic: no formal content, no direct narrative, and no theatricality. That was part of the theoretical position, and so the film was brought in as a way of questioning and interrogating this minimalist position. Part of my own interest at that time was in film as a formal critique of this minimalist hegemony.
Strom – You also started writing articles on Italian film and theatre for the Vancouver-based art publication Vanguard. How did this interest in post-war Italian film relate to your artwork at that time?
Kleyn – When I was in Rome, the architect I was working for had also worked in film. He had been the art director of Rossellini’s Vanina Vanini (1961). Rossellini was going to shoot another film, and had called him up. He said that he was too busy but there was this young architect in his office who had done a couple film projects in Canada. So I was introduced into the Rossellini scene.
Strom – Was this Rossellini’s last film
Kleyn – It was his last completed film. It was shot in North Africa and at Cinecitta. He was preparing a new film and had a heart attack while he was on the jury at Cannes. The Rise to Power of Louis the Fourteenth (1966) had been my favorite film even before I had worked for Rossellini. I think it is one of the most brilliant pieces of cinema. It’s a historical work, it’s narrative, and it’s beautifully shot. You know how important Rossellini was for people like Godard, who was influential to me and many other artists in Vancouver. We were all students of that work.
Strom – You had several exhibitions in Italy during the 1970s. How would you characterize this work?
Kleyn – I was in a big group show called Contemporanea held in the parking garage under the Villa Borghese. It was before the Rossellini thing, probably 1971. The director had a video system to tape auditions and I borrowed it. It was a quarter inch reel-to-reel thing. I was just messing around. I had done some stuff with the [Sony] Portapack here in Vancouver. I was shooting this stuff over in Positano which in those days had a bit of a summer art scene. One day, Achille Bonito Oliva came by and watched what I was doing. He said, “I’m putting together this show and I would really like to have this videotape in this show.” So I was happy to do that. I reshot it here because the quarter inch wasn’t giving me a good enough quality. There was so little equipment around that it was almost impossible. We were still doing editing on the fly with two Portapacks. Everything was jerky, and so we worked with that too. Edits were rough. I re-shot it here in Vancouver and then sent it off and showed it in Italy.
Strom – And what was the subject matter and structure of that piece?
Kleyn – It was kind of a performative/performer thing based on the idea that if you get someone in front of the camera they will do whatever you tell them from behind the camera. I had always been interested—from a conceptual point of view—in those psychological experiments where they manipulate people to do stuff they wouldn’t do otherwise. I was familiar with the work of Dan Graham and the behavioural situations that he set up in his early work. And I also experimented with several of these behaviourist ways of perceiving things. I set up a table in one of the rooms of my house and in the drawer of the desk I hid a knife. My friend was an actress, so I set the camera down and I started talking with her and telling her what to do. I was saying, “do this, do that, come here and do this, write your name, put your hand on the table,” and so on. It went on and on and seemed kind of pointless. Then at a certain point, I told her to open the drawer where she discovered the knife, and I said, “take the knife and stab yourself.” She looks at the camera and goes, “What!” The tape ended there.
Strom – This sounds reminiscent of Michael Powell’s wonderfully bizarre 1960 film Peeping Tom, which, among other things, looked at the effects of capturing fear on camera. Would that have been around the same time that you did a series of photographs at night in the forest with what appears to be a spotlight?
Kleyn – That was a bit earlier. Those photos are from a videotape, and were very poorly reprinted in Vanguard while it was still in its pulp format. That videotape, because it sat around for thirty years, had lost all of its magnetic coating by the time I tried to restore it. Because I was working in film, I had access to a Sungun. I borrowed a Portapack from UBC. Three of us went down to the wooded area beside Jericho Beach. One had the camera, and the other had the Sungun. I ran around the camera in a circle while the person with the Sungun tried to pick me out. There was this whirring of these tree trunks being lit by this light beam, and occasionally there was a flash of me running. So you get the tree trunks which are quite brightly lit, and the noise of me running through the branches. It was a “chase scene” in a sense. Like a genre piece. But it was completely conceptual at the same time—this very simple act of circling. I never showed that as a tape, because there was hardly ever any opportunity to show that kind of work. So it just went into my files and the images I printed went into my index cards.
Strom – In one of your early interviews you talk about an art piece where you are on a boat approaching an island with a video camera.
Kleyn – I first did that piece as a Super 8 film. Then I re-shot it as a slide piece. I was on a little motor boat off an island between Capri and the mainland and shooting over the stern, backwards toward the island. So you see the water with the wake patterns and the froth from the propellor. I shot it at dawn over the course of two days. On the first morning, I took shots of the mainland while going toward the island. I took the slides at regular intervals. I had already timed the length of the trip so that it would last eighty-one slides in each direction. The next day I did it at dawn shooting in the other direction, on the way back from the island. The slides of both trips were to be shown simultaneously, side by side with one going one way, and one going the other way. A tape loop with the sounds of the engines accompanyied the clicking of the shutter.
Strom – It sounds like you were constructing an installation that would disrupt the viewer’s relation to depth of field, a disjunctive, bifocal effect in a sense.
Kleyn – Yeah, “interference patterns” in a certain sense. I showed a video installation last year with CAUSA. It was a piece that I had conceived of and partially shot in the 1970s. It was based on a [video] feedback loop. I had already done some “re-photographing,” taking photographs of photographs, as well as photographs from the video screen, and I thought I’d do the same with video. In those days, the video cameras couldn’t handle feedback—you’d burn out the camera if you tried it. The camera’s electronics weren’t sophisticated enough. I was interested in this whole concept of feedback, of a closed loop, like a tautology. I was familiar with concepts of feedback and control mechanisms. I set up a fake situation in which the feedback didn’t occur. There was a monitor in the corner and a video camera shooting another corner. The idea was to map these two corners over top of one another. Of course, you couldn’t shoot the same monitor or you would get feedback. So it was like a little lie that I constructed, because it wasn’t the monitor it was pretending to be. When I redid it in Vancouver last year, I didn’t do it in that way because now the cameras can handle it. So I had a camera shooting the video monitor in the corner, showing the video monitor in the corner, so there was an infinite regression of the image.
Strom – While we’re on the subject of your early work—and before we shift into talking about your work on Journey Into Fear — I wanted to ask you about the piece you installed in the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1976 called Exploratory Space that involved four simultaneous slide projections of what appears to be the same scratched-up image of a ballerina dancing.
Kleyn – I guess there was the Étienne-Jules Marey influence and the whole filmic thing.
Strom – The work makes me think of an early phrase used to describe film: “galloping snapshots.” Yet, within certain intellectual tradition, and with very good reasons, there was a real effort to discuss the media of photography and film separately, but perhaps at the expense of explaining some of their similarities that those earlier discussions had achieved. It seems to me that your approach to slide work opens up some of these questions.
Kleyn – Sure, and those early discoveries were very scientifically oriented. It was part of the nineteenth century fascination with science and this utopian ideal aimed at the improvement of humankind. The photograph was this wondrous thing. Not like today where the photograph is so ubiquitous. I was trying to capture a sense of discovery with that installation. So I had it set up with each of the screens at a progressively greater angle. All of the projectors were timed so you were supposed to perceive a motion. A kind of wave pattern was supposed to happen and it did to some extent. I wasn’t really trying to get some kind of illusion going or anything, but I was trying to suggest that there were different modes of looking at material and that one could construct all sorts of different ways of looking at images.
Strom – How did your work for the 1976 Rodney Graham and Robert Kleyn exhibition at Pender Street Gallery come about? The series of photographs had as their subject matter what appears to be typed words on cards being photographed in a pool of water in a public fountain.
Kleyn – There were different works in that show. I took those photographs in Rome. When I was working in film I would get film ends from the cameramen and roll them up myself so I always had tons of film! There was a lab in Rome that could process this internegative film and I had another lab where I could get high quality colour prints done relatively cheaply because of the film industry, whereas it was impossibly expensive here in Vancouver at that time. So, I realized I could do big blow-ups for next to nothing. This lead to the show at Pender Street Gallery.
Strom – Was this work coming out of Italian semiotic theory? Did this intellectual scene exert a force on what was going on in the art world in Rome?
Kleyn – Yeah, maybe a bit later with the development of “weak thought” in the late 1970s. For me there was a kind of correspondence between the West Coast funk conceptual and the Roman hyper-aesthetic and fragile thing. Maybe I was trying to make those mesh. It probably wasn’t a happy marriage [laughs]. When I think back to what was driving me in those days, it was partially that. I was trying to continue with some of the studies that I had been doing here and trying to work with similar ideas there. I had done works with water here as well—water surfaces and edges. I was interested in the reflections, how they depend on the angle, the moment, and the light.
Strom – How about Daniel Mann’s 1975 Journey into Fear and your experience with that project?
Kleyn – I was in the art department on that film. There weren’t a lot of people in the industry yet. I hired Ian Wallace as a scenic artist. Ian wasn’t teaching yet, as far as I remember, so he was often quite hard up for money, as artists often are. Ian did some backdrops for me. We had to reshoot a closeup scene with an actor—I can’t remember who it was—dangling in a stairwell. Ian did this giant hand-coloured photograph of the stairwell as well as some other set pieces.
Strom – What can you tell me about the film’s ship scenes. Were they shot here?
Kleyn – The interiors were done here. We reconstructed the cabins. Shelly Winters was on set. She could be a real prima donna. Zero Mostel would occasionally disappear for hours and delay the shoots. It was cold. It was winter. We worked in the film studios in West Vancouver that are gone now, replaced by a suburb. We stripped down an old ship that I had found moored in the Fraser River. We recreated the set of the ship’s interior. Sets are always like machines where everything is moveable. You break them apart and put them back together.
Strom – What did you learn from these types of processes that you developed in set design in relation to your work in art photography, film, and architecture?
Kleyn – Well, I was interested in installation already, so I had an interest in building something inside something else. I also did some sets for commercials. A commercial is this quick thing, where you shoot very little. It’s not like a film where you improvise, and you provide all sorts of things in case the director changes his or her mind, or the actor wants to do something. A commercial is often completely scripted. You build this thing, like a little corner that represents a much larger situation, like this corner of the bookshelf, for example. So I did sets where you build little chunks of space. I was intrigued with those things as being sculptural elements at the same time. I had seen some of Gordon Matta-Clark’s work where he sawed and cut out elements. I was constructing, but it looked like something that may have just as well be sawn out of a bigger piece.
Strom – And you were trained in sculpture as well.
Kleyn – The set became a sculptural object for me. The fact that the setting could be constructed, moved, and reconstructed is very interesting. I’ve always been interested in taking the thing back down again.
Strom – Tell me about the project you worked on called Architecture of the Fraser Valley (1972).
Kleyn – It was funded by an OFY [Opportunity for Youth] grant that I got with Bob Sandilands, an architect who now works with Bing Thom. It was 1972 or 1973. We published this little book. There were many people who worked on Architecture of the Fraser Valley: Rodney Graham, Maureen Ryan, Duane Lunden, Frank Johnston (or Frank Ramirez, who was the lead singer of UJ3RK5). I think Ian Wallace still has some of the negatives.
Strom – What was your involvement in that project?
Kleyn – Well, I dreamt it up, wrote the grant application, edited and published the book, wrote the introduction, and took a lot of the photos. If you look at it as a study of the vernacular, it’s not very powerful. But it really worked as a critique of modernism and the way I was being taught architecture at UBC. It was the time of the ideology of concrete. They were teaching us to build this Brutalist stuff. After my first year at UBC, I was accepted at the Architecture Association in London. But then I thought if I went to the AA it was going to take me another five years of Brutalism. In retrospect, it would have been worth it [laughs]. Now I really want to try on a Brutalist design. Anyway, the vernacular functioned as a critique of modernism. We were all familiar with Jeff Wall’s Landscape Manual (1969). In that project, of course, there was that interest in driving, the suburb, and the filmic relationship between still photography and certain kinds of narrative. The same concerns inform Architecture of the Fraser Valley as well. It’s as much a study of that as it is a study of the vernacular. The vernacular was also an excuse to go on these dérives around the Fraser Valley.
Strom – So you had a car or truck that you would all travel in?
Kleyn – Yeah, I had an MGA and we’d hit the road with our cameras and take photos. It was really the beginnings of sprawl. You would get these shots of dilapidated old farm houses across empty fields. There wasn’t a lot going on yet: even Richmond wasn’t very built up in those days. There was some suburban development in Richmond, but the Fraser Valley itself was pretty rural.
Strom – This is when the Vancouver Specials really take off?
Kleyn – Everybody loves the Vancouver Special. Yeah, it’s a cheap and easy building to do that corresponds precisely to the local building codes and construction practices. There have always been Vancouver Specials. They just change from year to year. They adapt to the current culture. They still do them now, they’re just not the same as the classic Specials. The ones from the 1970s are quite beautiful. The thing about the Vancouver Special is that it’s generic. It’s just a shell, so you can do anything you want on the inside. I’m interested in those generic problems. I would prefer not to design a special or specific building in that sense. I’ve always found the whole concept of the “architect building” to be fetishistic. There is a kind of architectural approach that can lead to the reduction of the role of the architect to the level of a stylist. I try not to think about it like that. For me, it’s more of a cultural operation, where you’re having a dialogue with the culture. It’s interesting to take on some of these more generic issues. I’m talking about engaging the social means of production and really working with the social means of production, not carving yourself out a niche market and driving yourself into a comfortable irrelevance. The important issue is that architecture is a form of mass culture. That’s what makes it work. Koolhaas is master at that. He knows how to engage mass culture.
Strom – Funny that you mention Koolhaas, because he started off as a filmmaker.
Kleyn – And a journalist. Well, when you look at all of those international avant-garde architects, they all have a past as conceptual flâneurs. I was just looking at something by Hans Hollein. He’s done a number of museums. He did a kind of conceptual architecture early in his career. Raimund Abrahms, who was at Cooper Union and is now at SciArc, is another.
Strom – With your career in architecture really moving forward in the past fifteen years, do you think much about the relation between architecture and your early experience with film?
Kleyn – I try it on in various ways. I continue to buy those books on film and architecture. I stick them on my shelf and look at them when I’m trying to rethink a teaching problem for my students. I guess it just depends. The notion of time is extremely important in architecture, but it is really complicated, and I’m not sure there is any particular way to deal with the temporal aspect of architecture. Space is always temporal. I have had an interest in temporal and portable structures for a long time and in structures that are set up within other things. One of the architecture problems that I assign to my students is a “big box” problem, where you build a giant shed, and everything that happens is inside the shed. There are some architects who also work along this line for various reasons. It also has to do with the critique of the program as a fundamental component of functionalism. So, maybe this relates back to that particular trajectory of my work in film: this notion of building it up and building it back down again.
About the Author
Jordan Strom is a curator and writer based in Vancouver. He is Founding Editor of Fillip. He currently works as Curator of Exhibitions and Collections at the Surrey Art Gallery.