Omer Fast's videos are mind-blowing mergings of artifice and truth, populated by refugees, soldiers, and other characters who may or may not be acting.
‘I find people who want to talk, and I listen to them, and then I do my work,” says Omer Fast, best known for his provocative videos and films that blur fact and fiction, personal experience and shared histories, news reports and storytelling.
Fast has been busy. He showed his film The Casting (2007) at the Whitney Biennial in 2008, the same year he won the $100,000 Bucksbaum Award, enabling him to make his three-part film Nostalgia. It premiered in 2009, as did his first live theater piece, Talk Show, presented as part of Performa 09 (New York’s performance-art biennial). In January 2010 he exhibited two videos at New York’s Postmasters gallery.
While none of Fast’s works, even those in which he appears, are autobiographical, their focus on identity and role reversal is rooted in the artist’s childhood. Born in Jerusalem in 1972, he was shuttled back and forth between the United States and Israel while his father pursued a medical degree in both countries. “It was confusing, but it was also empowering,” Fast recalls. “I grew up with two identities and two languages that I had to speak fluently, and so what is always connected to my work is this notion of being perceived as authentic, and how much that is a performance.”
Fast, looking studious in glasses, a button-down shirt, and jeans, tells how his family settled in Jericho, Long Island, when he was 13. Because he was able to draw well as a youth, relatives and friends labeled him an artist, but he wasn’t so certain that was his career path of choice. After high school he enrolled in a dual-degree program at Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, majoring in English and painting, and then entered the M.F.A. program at Hunter College, where he created his first video works. Within a year after graduating, in 2000, he fell in love with a German fashion designer in Berlin, where he moved to be with her, and where he has remained for the past nine years. The couple have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. “I don’t self-identify as an Israeli artist, or as an American artist or a German artist either,” says Fast. “Those are difficult things for me to say and keep a straight face.”
Perhaps the fact that Fast is an artist with two passports—American and Israeli—but no fixed national identity is why he has been able to cross many boundaries and sit down with people of different backgrounds and get them to talk. He begins almost all his works by interviewing subjects to gather stories as source material. But then he proceeds to play fast and loose with the information he has gleaned, often editing the Q&A sessions into seamless monologues that bear but a slim resemblance to the original discussion.
For one of his earlier works, Spielberg’s List (2003), a 65-minute two-channel video installation, Fast went to Krakow and interviewed actors and extras who had played Jews and Nazis in Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award–winning 1993 film Schindler’s List, the story of a German who saved Polish Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories. Many of the people Fast interviewed were too young to remember the Nazi period, but some had memories of the Jewish ghetto and the concentration camp.
Fast edited the interviews in such a way that the accounts of acting in the movie and of living through the war become blurred. He intercut the monologues with scenic footage from the concentration camps and from Spielberg’s movie set.
The artist’s interviews were conducted in Polish, a language Fast knows slightly, having heard it spoken by his paternal grandfather, who escaped from Poland to Israel during the war. The film is accompanied by two sets of subtitles, which run simultaneously. One set was provided by a translator, and the other was created after the fact. The differences between the two sets of words tend to underscore the impression that nothing is factual and everything is subject to interpretation.
“I wanted to visit Poland for personal reasons, and the work is almost a form of tourism,” says Fast, who knew from the beginning that he would not be making a straightforward film about his family’s experience in Poland. “Instead of doing a kind of back-to-my-roots visit, I thought to start with Schindler’s List, a film that I had not even seen at the time.
“I wanted to address the notion,”?he continues, “that the knowledge we have of this period is very much fractured by personal experience, received experience, experience of relatives and parents, and, of course, the huge corpus of images and films that have been made around this time, all weirdly intertwined.” Fast recalls that he began each interview by asking, “What do you remember from that time?”
The merging of two distinct time periods also takes place in Fast’s video Godville(2005), shot at the living-history museum in Colonial Williamsburg. Fast began this piece by interviewing actors who make their living playing ordinary citizens at the time of the Revolutionary War. He focused on three characters—a housewife, a slave, and a militiaman—asking them not only to speak in the voice of their persona in the museum reenactments, but also to tell, in their own voice, about their experiences in contemporary America. He then edited the footage into monologues that swerve from past to present and from fiction to fact.
“It was a rather beautiful way to talk about how history gets portrayed and how our understanding of earlier periods becomes really complicated through a series of mediations and interpretations,” says Anne Ellegood, now curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, who acquired the work in 2005 while she was working at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. “His editing is extremely adept. He has actually cut syllables together to make a word,” says Ellegood. “He has very deliberately manipulated what is coming out of these people’s mouths, and sometimes when viewers see the work, they are suspicious about how much he has altered the material, even though, as an artist, he can do whatever he wants.”
“I don’t like making a piece that is transparent,” says Fast, even though he has often picked subjects well suited for documentary filmmaking, such as the Iraq war and suicide bombers. Despite the topicality of his subjects, Fast is more concerned with creating a narrative than delivering a news report. “I think in order to fully examine these issues, you would have to do something much more responsibly than I’ve done,” he says. “But I don’t see this as very different ethically than the kind of editing that’s done all the time on television.”
All these issues come together in The Casting, which interweaves two stories told by an American soldier—one about a date with a suicidal girl in Germany and the other about an accidental shooting of a civilian in Iraq. Viewers encounter a screen hanging from the ceiling on which two pairs of video projections are shown back-to-back, accompanied by a single voiceover of the soldier talking about his experiences. On one side, the audience sees a split screen: on the left is a shot
of a film crew, standing motionless in a contemporary tableau vivant; on the right are dramatic reenactments of the two stories, shot on location. On the other side, Fast is seen interviewing the soldier, with obvious indications of the editing he has employed to assemble a series of interviews into a single monologue. As the viewers move from one side of the work to the other, they are challenged to make a choice about what to believe—the audio, which presents a convincing and disturbing account of life in the military, or the video, which clearly shows the artist’s intervention. But none of this complexity diminishes the emotional impact of the soldier describing his grief and guilt over shooting at a car approaching his tank in the desert and killing a civilian in the backseat.
“The Casting is an installation that has a high degree of participatory involvement of the audience; it’s not just a projection,” says Paola Morsiani, curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, who just acquired the work as the first video installation in the museum’s collection. “Emotional content and intellectual content are extremely connected in Fast’s work.”
Fast’s projects have been growing increasingly cinematic, involving casting directors, actors, and film crews, and he has been expanding the scope of his inquiry from the dynamics of the interview process to the ways in which film techniques, such as turning interviews into scripts and having actors play real people, change our understanding of reality. His Take a Deep Breath (2008), a video, was based on a 2002 news story about an Israeli medic who rushed into a bombed restaurant to resuscitate an injured man only to discover later that the man he was treating was the terrorist who caused the explosion. Fast interviewed the medic and turned his experience into a comedy about a film crew in Los Angeles shooting a story about a suicide bombing in a falafel shop in Jerusalem. One actor plays Fast as director, who tries to explain to the cast and to police (who have arrived on the scene to investigate a noise complaint) that this is not a Hollywood action movie but a video-art project. Take a Deep Breathis about many things, including the impact of terrorism on a civilian population. But it is more than anything about Fast’s role as an artist in distorting the truth for his own purposes.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Nostalgia, which is composed of three film segments, each presented in a progressively darker room. The work was inspired by an interview with a Nigerian refugee seeking asylum in London. But rather than documenting the problems of illegal immigrants, the piece investigates how a fact-finding interview can be a misleading exercise in storytelling. The first segment shows a fragment of an actual interview, and the second turns the same exchange into a scripted two-person play. The final part, a 30-minute science-fiction film about Caucasian refugees trying to break into an imaginary developed African nation, is particularly troubling, because the roles of interviewer and interviewee, investigator and infiltrator, are reversed. “I think Omer Fast is in the vanguard of artists who are using video, sound, and media,” says Tina Kukielski, senior curatorial assistant at the Whitney Museum who oversaw the presentation of Nostalgia. As Kukielski explains, “While it was specific to Fast’s experiences relating to these Nigerian refugees in London, it operates on a much higher universal level that could speak to many people across many cultures.”
Nostalgia can be viewed as a metaphor both for the plight of illegal immigrants seeking asylum and for the inherent pitfalls of the interview process, especially when the power dynamics between interviewer and subject are unequal. Fast explains, “This work is about taking a fragment, which in the first segment is closely connected to an actual person, on a journey where it becomes increasingly embedded in different scenarios.”
Fast, who is represented by gb agency in Paris and by Arratia, Beer in Berlin, is working on a new project, tentatively titled “The Tunnel.” He describes it as “a short film that weaves interview extracts with unmanned drone pilots into a larger fictional story that takes place in and around Las Vegas.” His videos sell for between $40,000 and $150,000, according to Magda Sawon of Postmasters gallery, who also works with the artist.
“At the same time,” he says, “I’m developing a feature-length adaptation of Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder for Film4 and the UK Film Council in London.” An avid reader, Fast is also working on a project inspired by Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, about the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan from 1979 to 2001. “I don’t make art that is transparent and speaks an urgent truth to people. I always find ways of branding my own issues into the representations I deal with.”
Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews.