Putting Video to David Bowie’s Music:
A Conversation With Artist Tony Oursler
By Juan Jose Santos
We all have that friend we love to invite to our birthdays because he always come with an shocking present, a giant Scalextric, a human skull, or a disturbingly realistic dildo. For David Bowie, that friend is artist Tony Oursler.
When Bowie turned 50 in 1997, he wanted to have the most brutal birthday party in the world. So he organized a huge concert with guests like Lou Reed, Robert Smith, Frank Black, and Sonic Youth. The best gift of all was from none other than Tony. The artist contributed his signature floating eyeball projections to the festivities.
This past January 8, Bowie celebrated his 66th birthday with the launch of the music video of the first single of his first album in 10 years — a very special occasion. And who was called on to make the birthday present? Tony Oursler directed the video for the single “Where Are We Now,” Bowie’s surprising comeback. Tony brought Bowie into his studio to create a remembrance of Bowie’s Berlin days, from 1977-78, the era and place echoed in the star’s evocative lyrics.
I talked to Oursler about the shoot, and some secrets were revealed. Bowie and Oursler’s wife, artist Jacqueline Humphries, were converted into electric effigies, as Oursler called them. Humphries was chosen because she looks like Bowie’s personal assistant, Corrine “Coco” Schwab, who refused to appear in the video. Coco lived with David and Iggy Pop during the Berlin period.
In the video, Bowie appears wearing a T-shirt on which is written, “m/s Song of Norway.” That’s a 1970 film in which his then-girlfriend, Hermione Farthingale, had a role. On the projector screen in the video is the auto repair shop below Bowie’s Berlin apartment, and the dog in the shoot is Coco’s dog.
Between the birthdays occasions, Tony took the time to participate in this short interview, which reveals, among other gems, why David Bowie was hiding from a child in Oursler’s basement.
Juan Jose Santos Matteo: How was working with David? How did you divide the work of creating the music video?
Tony Oursler: With all collaborations it’s a kind of balance of the scale and flow of energy. In this particular situation, David had a very specific idea. In fact, this video was really his concept. It’s a sort of nesting doll. His concept involves my work, and of course the main factor was to birth and carry his song into the world of the internet. So given those parameters, it was a very good fit and had a lot of rich overtones of resonance with past and future ideas, which somehow connects with the theme of the song.
JM: Is there a symbolism to everything in the video, like the rock, or the mannequin? Does it all have a meaning?
TO: When choosing the objects I did think about referencing all of David’s previous albums. So there is a layering. But then what separates the language of art from mathematical equations is of course the organic deviations. Simply put, we deviate to try and set a certain point. I think David was attracted to the mounds of junk which are either from past projects or to be potentially included in future projects. The studio is a kind of memory palace, which we tapped into.
JM: Do you know why David wanted your wife to be an “electric effigy”?
TO: There has been much discussion about why David wanted a pairing or a doppelganger. My personal feeling is that the video is all about the border between the present and the past, the east and the west, the self and the other. But more specifically I think David and Jacqueline have an interesting friendship; he’s a fan of her painting and somehow his mind is synesthetic — I think he relates to the way she uses paint and her layering of the surface, and somehow sees it analogous to his soundscapes, which is a really interesting take on abstract art. As you may know my wife Jacqueline Humphries is an abstract painter. She and David are also both bibliomaniacs, and trade reading lists quite a bit.
JM: Did anything funny happen during the music video shoot?
TO: The whole process was secret, and of course it was in my studio at a relatively busy time. My son, who’s 9 years old, would wander into the studio to say hi to David. His babysitter is quite a big fan of Bowie, so she wanted to get an autograph. It was kind of amusing hiding David in the basement and scheduling the video shoots around playdates.
JM: When you visit a museum together, who knows more about contemporary art, you or David?
TO: The guy has an indexical knowledge of art history and definitely knows more in certain areas than I do. But for us, it’s always about the digressive conversation, and that’s incredibly special. And as we know, David Bowie is probably the best artist in the world.