After having a solo show at Jessica Silverman Gallery in San Francisco cut short because of shelter-in-place orders, Isaac Julien, 60, was working in Santa Cruz, whose University of California branch is home to the Isaac Julien Lab. Known for sumptuous videos centered on radical histories, which he releases in multiple formats, from single-screen cuts to immersive multiscreen installations, Julien is scheduled to have a show at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco in the fall.
Filming would be impossible right now. Maybe the gods were looking down on me in 2019, because I had the kind of mad intention of making these two gigantic projects — “A Marvellous Entanglement,” on the architect Lina Bo Bardi, and “Lessons of the Hour,” on Frederick Douglass — and I did. That has meant that 2020 has been the kind of year with more exhibitions and my making single-screen versions of work, so a time when it’s more postproduction. If I had not done that, this would be very disruptive. There really are some things you can continue doing while social distancing, and there are some things that you cannot.
And yet, we’re seeing this flourishing of video art and media works on social-media platforms. I participated in this Metro Pictures film festival, which I think was really successful. I really enjoyed seeing “Baltimore” [his 2003 short starring Melvin Van Peebles] during that time, and it was great to be able to post about it on Facebook and Instagram, to have all the responses to the work. I realized that a lot of the video artworks that one makes — they become, in a way, connected to the time when they were made. People have the memory. But it’s great to be able to redistribute them on social-media platforms and to introduce the work to new audiences. Viewers were really excited, and this made me think about the possibility of how those works could live in a different capacity. When we have an exhibition of work showing in a museum, maybe we can have a single-screen version on social media simultaneously and think about both platforms as exhibition spaces.
What was good about the festival was that you got excited about who was going to be the next artist, and then you looked at the films, and you had time to look at them, and you could really learn things. Since then, other works of mine have been shown at special events. For example, in Brazil, the Goethe-Institut in Salvador showed my Fanon film [“Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask” (1995)] — it was just on for 24 hours, and it was watched by over 37,000 people. We kind of couldn’t believe it when the figure came out. Funnily enough, the Fanon film was also showing in an exhibition in Singapore, and they showed it online, too, and some friends from Germany saw it. So you have this internationalization of the platform, of different people watching different works.
This kind of lit the fuse. I got approached by lots of other institutions and museums, and I thought to myself, “OK, hang on here a minute. I think I might stop and think about it a little bit more, because maybe we can do it ourselves, in the studio.”