Christopher Ulutupu’s ‘NEW KID IN TOWN’ at Cement Fondu
March 7th 2021
Visual artist Christopher Ulutupu sits down with Jen from Movies Movies Movies to talk about their cheeky new video art project NEW KID IN TOWN, featured in the exhibition ATTENTION TOURIST alongside Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, Blackbirds and 110% in its final week at Cement Fondu.
Ulutupu lives and works in Aoteoroa / New Zealand and has made a name creating tableau style video works with his friends and family – we’re talking family karaoke videos in a white wall gallery. Fake postcard compositions of his team of actors and models hang in outdoor locations sharing moments around a post-Hobbit, post-post-colonial NZ. Jen and Christopher talked about his new work NEW KID IN TOWN, why he walked away from the film industry and his exquisite version of sustainable movie-making.
J: I haven’t seen the work so can you describe it?
C: I’m just showing four scenes and each of the four scenes are on different channels and they’re looped videos of a particular interaction. So I hired this performer, his name’s Luke, to be my male model, we’ve been calling him during the shoot, and so I hired this male model to hang out with my family down in Nelson for a week. We staged performances with him interacting with some of the women in my family just at tourist hotspots around Nelson. I don’t know these works are very still and almost real painterly. Almost like a return to form for me in terms of my first earlier works I did around looking and gazes and things like that.
We’ve been doing it for a while now so, you collaborate past three to four years making really ridiculous works and so we’ve gotten to a point where I’m just like hey so what do you want to do? At this beautiful location. Like what can you do? And then we just have a discussion about what they feel comfortable doing and most of it is like, you know, ‘I don’t wanna do anything too intense, I just wanna lie around’ or ‘I can do this one thing with my hands’. We’re pretty loose when it comes to informing what the performance is.
I think someone asked me one time ‘Hey, do you script your stuff’ and I don’t really. I think I’m more interested in arriving to a space and bringing all the elements like the props, costumes and the people and the material and just seeing what happens and build the frame from there.
J: This is a question from my partner who does the show on FBi with me, he was wondering about your relationship to realism and the obvious unreality of film. I guess fitting into a cinematic paradigm, especially in Australia and New Zealand where predominantly there’s a pretty strict realist approach to filmmaking outside of Peter Jackson and Taika, but your work is quite painterly.
C: I think there’s a bit of both. For me it’s about fantasising, dreaming, hypothesising about alternative ways of being in a space or in a location. My whole practice actually started from going on a holiday with my friend Inga who’s Dutch and also my friend Weinang and they’re both foreigners so they didn’t have anywhere to go for Christmas and they asked me if I wanted to join them on a camping trip, to the dismay of my family who were like: ‘What, you wanna spend Christmas with who?! You spend Christmas with your family!’ and I’m like ‘Oh I’m gonna do something different this year’, anyway.
We go up to this place, this beautiful place up in the peninsula called Mahia on the West Coast of the North Island and it’s beautiful there. I was lying in the sand dunes where we were camping and looking up and starting to envision things. My friends call is Pisceing out, so my little Pisces brain just Pisced out and started dreaming of these different performances on these sand dunes and I was thinking this would be a perfect frame out here, there’s some water, there’s this beach and it would be nice to have a little chair, an armchair and some things going on. So I thought when I get back to doing my Masters maybe I’ll stage that and have an armchair and a muscle man and I’ll see what that is and I guess from there that’s how I shot these bits that I did: Down By The River and then I shot Into The Arms of My Coloniser shortly after that.
In my head I was like it’s so strange that we spend all this money and this time. We travel to these tourist spots and what are we supposed to do there besides tanning or swimming? I was questioning the absurdity of it in that context and I thought it’d be a funny platform for maybe some performance.
J: How do you deal with critique and whose critique do you care about?
C: That’s a good question because sometimes I’m like yes, yes, yes when I get the good critique and people are like: I thought about this and that and you should look at this, from a lot of people. Then sometimes there’s a lot of fodder and I feel like, I’m very chill and I’m like yes, yes yes but I think when people are wasting my time and they just want to hear their own voices I’m pretty good at saying ok that’s fodder you shouldn’t say that or I’m moving on and in terms of the general art critique. Cause one thing is like as long as people look at the works, like my family and my friends that are in it and they get a sense of fond memories about the work then I’ve done my job right.
I think in terms of that interaction and engagement. I think the natural Samoan in me is like; I want to be a good host, I want to make sure everyone’s fed, make sure everyone’s got a place to sleep, everyone is having essentially a holiday. I turn my shoots into holidays so that people have a well rested, well fed, looked after little party. Have whatever they need to do the work. It’s really important for me that people walk away from that experience and go ohhh that was really nice and it was really great to get to hang out with this weird group of people and do these weird things and in all these tourist spots.
J: Do you ever envision, obviously you’re making things resourcefully now, but do you ever envision a future where you just have blockbuster money and your family.
C: Oh definitely! I feel like it’s too scary for the New Zealand Film Commission to be like ‘Hey I’m gonna do a film without a script, how do you feel about that?’ They’ll be like ‘What! That’s crazy! We’ve always had scripts!’ And I’ll be like ‘No.’
J: I remember hearing that that’s how Warwick Thornton got Samson and Delilah up. They knew what they wanted to do and it was all in his head and then they forced him to write a script and there were people who were on the crew that were just outraged thinking they should give him money anyway. I remember being a bit first year film school thinking that’s insane you can’t just give someone money without a script and now I think no, no, no scripts are evil. The architecture of a script is destined for abuse.
C: Oh my god I didn’t even know that, that’s so cool. People do it so well, I’m not saying that you can’t do a good work with having scripts. I think personally I’m just kind of like: ‘Oh, I found this other way and I really want to push it and see what happens if I don’t have a script.’
I find the performances so much more interesting because people aren’t trying to be characters, they’re being themselves and they do this awkward thing with their bodies where they’re like: ‘Oh, what am I doing, Ok I’m doing it! I’m doing that now, we’re here, I’m saying these things’ and it’s real beautiful. I would love to one day be like Film Commission fund me I’m going to do a feature length and I don’t have a script, I’m gonna do it all in my head and work with these beautiful people who have worked like this for many years.
J: I loved what you were saying about production. Do you have any tips for anyone who wanted to go out and shoot the way you shoot, themselves?
C: I guess just build your team. Be loyal to your team. I always shoot with the same people, so every time we come together we’re like ‘hahaha we’re doing this thing, I can’t believe we’re doing this random stuff’ but I’ve really built relationships that way and they get when I’m saying: ‘Hey let’s do this thing over here’. People don’t question me when I want to do something real insane like saying ‘hey I want to get a helicopter how do I do that’ and all these things. And they love, it’s about bringing them along on the ride as well is really fun. That’s my only thing; build up your team, build up the language that you use as a team.
I’m just thinking of even my family in one of the works that we shot recently. I know, I didn’t even have to say anything. My brother came along and my sisters, my brother picked up the boom pole and did sound check. My mum’s trying to find her marker. These are the things that we’ve built over time and this trust that we’ll each do our job the way we need to do it. So it’s both. Loyalty, try and hire and pay the people, the same people. Try and build a team and second of all is trust them and hand over some of that control. For me part of the decolonisation process is de-centring myself as director. Really hear what other people have to say. Some people’s ideas are better than yours and that’s okay. Being open to that.