Fighting for Attention: An Interview with Ruben Östlund

Photo: Márton Árva

Article: Lilla Puskás, Márton Árva

A week before he was awarded the Palme d’Or, we sat down with Ruben Östlund at the Cannes Film Festival, a distinguished high-art event that is somewhat similar to the ones The Square addresses, and talked about difficulties of contemporary art in reaching out to its audience, and ethical limits in advertising.

Earlier you described The Square as a typical Ruben Östlund film. How do you see a typical Ruben Östlund film?

I would say it presents a very strong, clearly defined situation that contains a dilemma, few or more opportunities, but none of them are easy to make. It’s an individual put into a conflict with himself in a situation that is close to stand-up comedies. If you combine that with a sociological perspective, then I would say it’s a typical Ruben Östlund film.

The Square is based on an installation that you have made with Kalle Boman. Please elaborate on your idea.

We came up with an idea that we should remind ourselves of our roles in public spaces and of our roles towards each other. The concept was simple: we wanted to create a symbolic space and make an agreement that if someone is standing in the square, it’s everyone’s obligation to help this person, addressing him and asking, ‘Hey, I see you are standing in the square, how can I help you?’ So for me, this square was a way of breaking the ‘bystander effect’ that often occurs in public spaces, when we don’t know whose responsibility it is to take action. In these situations, even though everybody feels that something bad is going on, we get paralysed by the feeling that we are in a public space. This was the aspect I wanted to develop in the movie.

What was your concept behind reframing the idea in the art world? 

In this way, we could discuss this subject in a verbal way without making it too constrained, because in a museum one can naturally talk about art. I also wanted to undress the roles that we, humans, are playing and wanted to present a lot of rituals. One can actually hide behind them without having any interesting content but then you scratch the surface and look at what’s underneath and you see whether it’s something important to talk about or not.

Do you think there is a way for contemporary art to find a way back to the public?

Yes, as soon as something comes up that is interesting. When I was doing the research for the film, I was travelling around and going to many contemporary art museums. What I saw on the wall was a piece of neon text and some things on the floor. It didn’t provoke me, didn’t raise any questions, and I felt the conventions of the museum really do limit what one can experience there.

Can you recall any recent pieces of art that put you into a deep dilemma?

A Dutch documentary by Renzo Martens called Enjoy Poverty made me think a lot. Besides that there is a Norwegian performance artist called Christian Falsnaes. He has a performance called Syntax Error that is also about group dynamics and not keeping to the rules.

Why do you think people’s attitude in public spaces have changed?

I think our capitalist society and economics have changed how we behave towards each other. Cities are constructed for consumers and not for citizens and human beings. I think this has confused us, and I also think that society makes us afraid of each other, because it makes us better consumers. We ask ourselves about how society became more unsafe. But actually it hasn’t, our fear of each other has got bigger. Now we are in a system and that may have to be questioned sometimes.

You are known for getting inspired by YouTube videos. Which video did serve as inspiration this time?

I come across a video called GG Allin in Boston. He is a punk-rock performance artist, a very anarchistic person. I got interested in his video because it shows how we react when someone doesn’t respect the common rules that we have set up for ourselves. I love to undress these situations in luxurious milieus where everybody knows exactly what’s allowed and what’s not. I like to make someone go into that room and disturb this social equilibrium.

Oleg Kulik is known for similar performances as well.

Yes, the ‘ape man’ scene is a little bit inspired by him as well. Kulik did a performance in an art museum in Sweden and he went over the edge. He played a dog and ended up biting the child of the chief curator of the museum and finally, he called the police. This scene we were shooting for three days, and I think it works mainly because Terry Notary did a great job. It seems people believe it all happened in reality and we just captured it. But on the contrary, we planned for that scene a lot and agreed exactly on what he should do. In fact, I think we, humans, like looking at monkeys, because they embody instincts that are left if we take away the civilised side of ourselves. I find that sociologically very interesting.

How much do you improvise on set in general?

Of course, I have a very clear idea what I want to do, but then very often I realise that I have to do it in a slightly different way. If you have enough time on set then, you can get together with the actors to find out the way to do it, you can try out things. When the setup is right, quite absurd ideas can suddenly turn out to be the perfect things to realise. Also, trust is important to me, the feeling that the actors will put something into the scene that is better than I can write.

Can you see the Cannes Film Festival as a social experiment?

Yes, I definitely think you could find situations here that are really pointing out things about ourselves. One of these gallery dinners where this performance artist comes in and everybody is sitting in Tuxedo suits, that scene is made for being screened in the Grand Théâtre Lumière. It’s like the audience is sitting there in Tuxedos, looking at another audience that is in Tuxedos, or in a later scene, looking at themselves digging in the trash.

Do you think art management has to be today as cynical as you portray your PR agent characters?

I don’t want to think that they are just cynical. I think we have to fight to get attention to the content we think is important. Otherwise far right-wing politicians get all the attention, because they have such a provocative message.

You are also known for creating marketing tools. Is there a line that you yourself don’t want to cross, like a taboo that you don’t want to break in advertising your own work?

No, I don’t think so. I think the most important thing is that I think that the films I make are true to how I look at the world.  And then, of course, when you are promoting, you don’t want to spread bad ideas. No, I don’t think there’s a line for me.

Our review of The Square can be found here. 



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