For 12 hours, the Digital Arts Research Center played 11 of internationally acclaimed filmmaker Isaac Julien’s creations back to back on Nov. 27 and 28. A moving timeline of his 30-year exploring the global impacts of capitalism filled the dark room.
Julien spoke with film professor B. Ruby Rich on Tuesday night to a crowd of 100 about his most recent film “Playtime,” a seven-screen exploration on how people become commodities under capitalism now on display in the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture in San Francisco.
This conversation was part of Traction Art Talks, a new series with the Institute of Arts and Sciences (IAS) at UC Santa Cruz that connects undergraduates to internationally recognized artists.
“We were interested in selecting artists we thought were doing work on really important issues that define today and [are] indicative of important conversations happening in contemporary art,” said IAS curator and program manager Rachel Nelson.
Julien’s work has won various awards including the Cannes Semaine de la Critique and been featured in various museums around the world. He dissects how the power of a system dominated by money and technology affects sexual and racial identities.
“We hope students will consider that art does have something to tell them about the world, it offers opportunities and raises questions that we can then learn about,” Nelson said. “It raises all these questions, gives us different experiences, asks us to situate ourselves within histories.”
Julien started making films in a student collective after graduating from college under the neofascist British government in the 1980s. His early work challenged growing xenophobia on the streets of London as Black immigrants came to the city.
Lucy Ashton, UCSC fourth-year history of art and visual culture major, admired the way Julien uses film as a way of understanding and give meaning to current politics.
“Art is really important to contextualize the larger issues,” Ashton said. “His previous films, talking about the 1980s in Britain, talking about immigrants coming from different Caribbean islands and the tensions surrounding those — he made a film that perfectly responded to them and really contextualized them.”
Julien’s combination of dynamic images and sounds and theoretical complexity set him apart from other artists. Influenced by cultural theorists, like Stuart Hall and Frantz Fanon, Julien often explores the intersections between race, politics and culture in his work.
“Playtime,” his newest film, executes sharp and geometric visuals through wide shots of modern architecture and incorporates varying sounds and rhythms, like aa frantically quivering drum anda singular blaring trumpet, to define the intersections of globalism.
The film defines how capitalism impacts aspects of culture — even those one wouldn’t expect — like the art market. He also demonstrates how technological advancements concentrate economic opportunity within particular cities, creating surges in immigration from various countries.
“My interest in making the work [“Playtime”] stems from lots of different questions, which are connected to the movement of bodies and the movement that flows with digital information,” Julien said to the audience at Traction Art Talks.
This interest in the connection between migration of people and money comes from Julien’s experiences growing up in England as the child of immigrants from St. Lucia, Jamaica. As a Black and gay man, he said, his identity also charges his artistic explorations.
His work challenges viewers to consider different perspectives replicated by mainstream media, such a consumer-based culture influencing how one sees the world.
“[Beauty] works on the basis of white, straight men having that have access to things they could kind of just ignore if they wanted to or critique if they wanted to, but if they wanted to, they could also participate in these different pleasures of cinema of looking or gazing or being,” Julien said. “A lot of that is taken for granted in white culture and dominant culture.”
After his talk, several audience members questioned how his work plays into the larger shifting economy and political sphere.
“There has been a kind of revenge on the metropole from rural and outer counties,” Julien said. “I want to trace this relationship to the political ramifications of Brexit and the debates and anxieties around migration to this moment.”
Traction Art Talks will host four more artists throughout the course of the year.