#MeetTheArtist Bob Demper
Making a feature film on your own seems impossible in advance. Yet, this exactly what artist and filmmaker Bob Demper is trying to do. He exchanged the rigid film world for his own creative approach, in order to achieve the same result with intermediate steps. At Prospects, Demper shows such an intermediate step: Black Rock, Soft Storm. An installation in the form of a generic American office. It is the workplace of Donny, the main character in his forthcoming feature film.
Black Rock, Soft Storm
Demper has been working on 5000 Miles for over 4 years, a film that he partly shoots in the US and partly in his studio in The Hague. In recent years, the pandemic has forced him to revise his travel plans. Still, he was productive. The restrictions imposed gave him time and the opportunity to experiment.
“The movie is a long-running project from which smaller projects regularly emerge. Black Rock, Soft Storm is such a smaller project,” says Demper over the phone. This installation consists of the decor of the workplace of main character Donny, an anonymous office space behind a cold glass front. A scene from the movie can be seen on Donny's PC, while a benign storm rages outside. On large LCD screens, which act as a window, many large, soft objects are pressed against the glass.
Mental composite drawings
The idea of considering set pieces as spatial installations came about gradually. Seen from the right angle, the imagined reality holds, but as soon as you step back, it's gone. “From my interest in this fragility, which is very specific to cinema, paintings, sculptures and installations emerge that are both autonomous works and part of my films.”
For the design of his sets, Demper (The Hague, 1991) draws on his memory, or rather: his viewing experience. “Donny's apartment is in New York. When designing that space, I included a window that faces an alleyway. When I was in New York, it turned out that alleys like these almost didn't exist. They are missing in New York's rigid grid, where there is no room for 'useless alleyways'. The alleys stem from Hollywood's vision of the city. Screenwriters in LA added them, because space is less scarce there. Partly because of this, they are part of our collective memory. Ask someone to imagine an apartment in New York, and everyone will have a mental approximation of what it looks like drawing on a wide variety of pop culture examples.” Mental composite drawings, Demper calls them.
A factory on wheels
Demper graduated as a film director from the HKU in 2014 and subsequently worked on Borgman and Schneider vs Bax, two more recent films by director Alex van Warmerdam. It was educational, but it made Demper realize that the film world was not for him. “When I decided to become a filmmaker, I thought that if you were far enough along in your career, you could find a way of filmmaking in which the making process, especially the shooting days, would leave a lot of room for adventure. The reality is that as that 'factory on wheels' gets bigger, it also becomes less and less agile. Van Warmerdam does have creative freedom, but like any other filmmaker, he is bound by the limitations of the medium. That was a disillusionment for me and that is why I understand that he also paints”
Demper therefore recognizes himself in the statement of Alfred Hitchcock, who once said that he liked coming up with a project, but did not find the filming itself particularly exciting. What Demper especially missed while shooting was a lack of experiment, it was the mere 'execution' of an idea conceived earlier, as is possible in other disciplines such as painting or sculpture. With film this is only possible if you take matters into your own hands.
Demper’s preference for a method dictated by the process also means that the budget is a fraction of a full-length feature film, which in turn means that he pretty much does everything himself, both in front of and behind the camera. For example, in 5000 Miles, the limited number of actors is accommodated by making them wear masks, allowing the same actor to play multiple roles. The cottage on the still-timbered Damper in the Nevada desert during a residency. “Before I would stay in the desert for two weeks, I did not know that the house was coming. That came to me there and then. That's how I like to work, by building a set and spending some time there.”
Some degree of headstrongness is thus not foreign to Demper. A good example of this is his website, which is completely textless except for a few lines of a modest pop hit. Even contact information is missing. At the same time, the themes he addresses in Black Rock, Soft Storm stem from a great involvement with his immediate surroundings. For example, the main character Donny is at home dealing with a burnout, just like a number of people in Demper’s immediate environment.
His interest in Donny's employer, an American asset manager, does not come out of the blue either. In addition to his art practice, Demper works for a company that records shareholders' meetings, which piqued his interest in the world of finance and power structures.
The asset manager Donny works for is Blackrock, which manages about one-tenth of the total assets of the entire world. Such companies are dedicated to risk management. They operate by spreading investments, not only across different sectors, but also across the globe. For example, the company is controversial in the Netherlands because of the adverse effects their real estate portfolio has on the Amsterdam rental market.
To contain investment risks, the company has developed Aladdin, software that predicts market risks based on past events and personal information of millions of people. On this basis, the system shifts shareholders' assets, resulting in more stable financial markets and therefore more certain returns forecasts. “In such a world, real change seems impossible, because an algorithm predicts and corrects every outlier,” says Demper. “Not only is it slowly eroding a way of living together, but above all I think it is an anxious continuation of a disenchanted world. A world in which there is less and less room for personal feelings, magic or anything that cannot be expressed in figures or manageable units.”
Bob Demper's work can be seen during Art Rotterdam in the Mondriaan Fund's Prospects exhibition. For the 11th time in a row, the Mondriaan Fund presents the work of 73 starting artists. In 2021, all artists received a financial contribution from the Mondriaan Fund to kickstart their careers.
Written by Wouter van den Eijkel