Alan Gilbert: It’s my understanding that SQRRL/BRUCE WILLIS originated in a talk you gave, to which you then added gifs that you’d been making, and developed the work from there. Excerpts from this talk appear to scroll at times through the video. Can you describe the general evolution of the piece?
John Russell: The film developed out of, or simultaneously to, an animated text SQRRL, 2015. The idea was that the text would be distributed at the same time as the exhibition at Bridget Donahue Gallery where I was showing the film. So the text was shown simultaneously on the gallery website, Rhizome.org and as an evite, as well as in the film. The images/animations were created at the same time as the text, and also while I was working on the film and the other things in the show—so there was a play-off between the different elements. The text wasn’t supposed to be prior to, or an ‘explanation of’ or ‘content’—for instance, as a press release for the exhibition or ‘subject matter’ for the film. So I wasn’t imagining people would necessarily read all the text in the film, but maybe catch sections, make their own links and anyway the text exists elsewhere. In fact the film presents the SQRRL text layered over the top of another animated text Bruce Willis, Irigaray and the Aesthetics of Space Travel, 2014. I was thinking of this not as a synthesis or combination but as an additive process—a + b—one thing on top of another. I wondered if this would create something else, a new idea or an artwork, as a kind of alchemy. I also used the text for performances, reading it out and projecting the animations. And this fed into the film where I whispered the text on the soundtrack. It is also partly a story—about a future where humans can inhabit the bodies of smaller animals. And where squirrels/rodents have been identified as the ideal body-form for space travel. And how this all connects up with contemporary engagements with the ‘post-human’ and politics, for instance.
The turtle swimming around is from a film I made in 2014 called Aquarium Proletarian. It’s a turtle from an aquarium in Plymouth in UK. She is called ‘Snorkel’ and is partially blind and paralyzed, swimming round and round, in a relatively large aquarium bashing into the fiberglass rocks. When she comes up close to the glass you see she is truly prehistoric and could be swimming around in circles in a prehistoric ocean or if there’s a nuclear war, round and round in the dark, after everyone’s dead, in an aquarium.
AG: Why did you want to feature prominently Luce Irigaray’s Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche? And what was the source of your fascination with Bruce Willis?
JR: I was excited by Irigaray’s proposal for transformation, not just in Marine Lover, but in most of her books, particularly the early ones. The idea of not just ‘two’ but at least two—it’s the at least that’s crucial—as ‘a strategic move to open up multiplicity. As she writes: ‘in order to get multiplicity we must have first at least two’. As opposed to the ONE of patriarchy—as the structure of SAME and ‘different from the same’, where difference is only ever difference-from-the-same and so on. I think this structure is also coded (complexly) through race, class, sexuality. And the way she enacts, repeats or ‘does’ this in her writing: ‘eroticizing spirituality’, language as ecstatic, excessive, visceral, similar to Bataille —unfolding, ‘the divine within the carnal’ and ‘speaking the spirit as flesh and the flesh as transcendent'. This is a politics.
I quite like Bruce Willis. To quote: ‘Ejaculating out his penis-hole—but barefooted—the terrorists have shot out the partition windows—Bruce Willis must take care not to cut the flesh on the underside of his feet on the broken glass strewn around the office. Swaying there like a penis with the fat cut off, he remembers he used to specialise in comedy-action movies where he could deploy his rugged good looks as the lovable but flawed good guy (with sex potential)’. For instance, in the Moonlighting TV series (1985-9), as John McCane in the first two Die Hard films (1988 and 1990), or even as the washed up boxer in Pulp Fiction (1994).
AG: There’s a sophisticated mix of poetry, fictional narrative, and critical theory in the work in which each augment and interrupt the other. How did you go about weaving these three strands together?
JR: As I described above, this wasn’t particularly organized I was just thinking about the force of ideas, like Irigaray’s—that these might actually be able to change or do things in the world. The ‘force’ of ideas is important to this—not just whether they are clever or complex. And didacticism might not be so bad in this respect. But for Irigaray its to do with rehabilitating or mimicking the corpses of dead ideas and metaphors, that we’ve forgotten are metaphors and think are TRUTH and which underpin the structuring of what we say and think and ‘mean’ and so on. Somehow twisting this.
AG: There’s a dystopian dimension to the video, and yet the world you depict seems to be not only adapting but also thriving. Creatures, society, and nature itself have taken new forms, shapes, and colors after a major catastrophe. What is the future being plotted and imagined?
JR: I wasn’t seeing it as dystopian. I thought the opposite—a vision of a world transformed and/or transformable. But any transformation will always include conservative resistance and reterritorialisation, so I tried to include that.
AG: Different types of hybrids appear throughout the work: human and animal, nature and technology, male and female, etc. The piece itself is an update of the mixed genre essay-film structure. It seems as if this hybridity is presented as inevitable as much as it is embraced or promoted. What was your approach to this issue?
JR: The move towards ‘difference’ is described by Irigaray and Deleuze as potentially political—even though it can also be criticized as a kind of escapism. But if you take Irigaray seriously the patriarchal structuring of social relations means we can’t love each other—then we got to sort that shit out!
AG: At the halfway point of the video, it starts over and begins to repeat the opening narrative but with new texts scrolling in the background and some new gifs. At a certain point, your voiceover gets out of sync with the imagery. This second section deals more explicitly with issues of freedom and control, desire and death, individual and collective, and secular and divine. Can you talk about how the two sections function and a general sense of the difference in the same?
JR: That was partly a formal thing. In the first section the SQRRL text and images are mainly on top. In the second half the BRUCE WILLIS essay is more visible and takes precedent. I should have overlaid the footnotes to the SQRRL essay to be entirely consistent but I decided not to.