After our article about Hysterical Literature was such a hit, we had the immense honor to talk to the man behind it – photographer, filmmaker and writer Clayton Cubitt. Born in New Orleans and currently based in NYC, his work has been featured in publications such as Vogue, Rolling Stone and GQ. In this interview, he opens up about creativity, inspiration and the thought process behind his tremendously popular video sessions.
LF: What and who inspires you the most?
CC: I’m surrounded by beautiful and inspirational people. My woman inspires me daily with her strength and grace. My friends: the artist Molly Crabapple is doing innovative things in the world of painting and crowd-funding. Ninja and Yo Landi of Die Antwoord inspire me with their level of artist dedication and commitment to total experience. Xeni Jardin and Miles O’Brien inspired me with their immersive coverage of the recent genocide trial in Guatemala. Mona Eltahawy inspired me with her first-person journalism on the ground during the Arab Spring, when she put her own personal safety and health at risk for the story. Laurie Penny inspires me with her razor wit in debates with angry old conservatives. Warren Ellis inspires me with his perverse fascination with the dark aspects of technology and human nature.
Other artists I’ve been influenced by include Nick Knight, Araki, Malik Sidibé, Ai Weiwei, Olafur Eliasson, Alexander McQueen, United Visual Artists, and Peter Saville. I’m also inspired by street art and derelict buildings, old cars, and roadkill.
LF: What is the most important idea or message you wish to spread through your work?
CC: My work spans huge contrasts, between commercial and fine art, and between subject matter as varied as fashion, portraiture, and gritty documentary. The thing that ties them all together is a desire to disregard notions of allowed or not-allowed, high or low, sacred or profane, personal or professional.
I treat casual subjects with the same rigor and professionalism as I do formal subjects. I like to elevate low-brow subjects with a glossy treatment, and I like to take high-brow subjects down a peg by treating them with humor. All of it is wrapped in a sleek aesthetic, often with a clean or even austere calmness, or a darkness.
Like a film director, my different projects contain similar themes, but each tends to stand on its own aesthetically. I’m not a one-trick pony when it comes to how I technically treat a subject.
If I had to distill the meaning behind it all into a single message? Everything is art. Attention is worship.
LF: What are some of your favorite works of art?
CC: A few:
Nick Knight, “Susie Smoking”
Bernini, “The Rape of Proserpina”
Peter Saville, “Unknown Pleasures”
Olafur Eliasson, “The Weather Project”
Helmut Newton, “Green Room Murder”
LF: Where did the idea for Hysterical Literature come from?
CC: “Hysterical Literature” is an extension and refinement of earlier video works I was doing that explored the concept of distraction and fatigue in the poses of portrait sitters. Today, everyone has a well-practiced pose for “selfies” and for Facebook, and I was interested in how I might make a portrait that makes it impossible for the sitter to maintain this pose. So I did a video series called “Long Portraits” which filmed subjects just sitting making eye contact with the lens for five minutes or longer.
But this series, as much as I liked it, and as popular it became, was still in many ways too anonymous. What did it really say about the sitter? It was interesting, but it was mute. And it was conceptual ground already traveled by Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests.” I had also created an earlier video piece alled “Magic Interview” where I attempted to interview a woman while she was being distracted by a vibrator. It was interesting, but it felt too close to an interrogation, and I wanted to remove myself from the process as much as possible.
So I asked, what if the women could in some way have a conversation with themselves, through the reading of a passage from their favorite book? This would allow self-expression, without the pressure to pose or sound a certain way in a formal portrait or an interview. It would also remove me from the on-screen experience, and make for a fascinating battle between the mind and the body, and create a conceptual contrast by blending two areas that society tends to want to view through different lenses: art, and sex.
So I put the art on the table and the sex under the table, and that’s how Hysterical Literature was born.
LF: What were the reasons for the artistic choices you made, such as shooting in black and white?
CC: All the artistic choices were made in order to reduce, as much as was aesthetically possible, anything remotely associated with pornography, or luridness. I wanted as austere and clinical a set as possible, as “unsexy” as possible. And one that was as abstract as possible while still remaining traditionally “photographic.”
LF: What does a typical shooting day look like?
CC: I normally only film one session in a day. Usually sessions are separated by several days, sometimes weeks. The subjects show up, we have a cup of tea and chat about their book selection. Then there’s a very formal format for the filming itself. They introduce themselves, and begin reading. Under the table, an unseen assistant distracts them with a vibrator. Neither I or the subject has any control or interaction with the assistant under the table. The subjects stop reading when they’re too distracted to continue, at which point they restate their name, and what they’ve just read. The pieces vary in length based on the response time of the subjects.When they can walk again, they leave.
LF: What kind kind of feedback did the girls typically give you of their experience?
CC: Several of the subjects have written quite fascinating essays on their experience. The one universal theme seems to be the trance-like state they enter. Most describe having very little recollection of the passage of time, or even the words they were reading. It seems almost religious. And that’s a bit like the readings themselves. To me at least, they almost resemble incantations.
LF: What are you currently working on right now?
LF: I’m currently building a dedicated site to house the “Hysterical Literature project,” which will also include some existing new community aspects to the project, which I can’t talk about just yet, but that’s happening very soon. I’m just finalized a music video I directed for hiphop artist Nicky Da B, which is out right now. I’m working on some other commercial fashion and advertising projects, as well as a long-term documentary project in my hometown, New Orleans.