Christine Jakobson is co-founder and editor of four by three, “an independent online magazine committed to the discovery of perspectives previously overlooked in film, philosophy, art and music”.
Christine will be our guest curator all this week, check back each day this week to see her recommendations.
You’ve been the interviewer for a lot of interviews at four by three and I wonder what’s going through your mind when the tables are now turned? Is there a temptation to self-edit yourself, now or just before publication?
Bernard, co-founder at four by three, and I once interviewed a very well-established academic and it was an absolutely brilliant interview, which we did over several hours. It was genuine, heartfelt and it moved me. We transcribed, edited and sent it back for him to look over, but when we got it back, it had become an altogether different interview; all the deep-felt honesty had suddenly vanished. We asked him why he chose to transform it in such a way, and he replied: “there are consequences that no one beyond myself could comprehend in this context. I have to uphold these words for a longer period than they will be present in your life”. It became clear to me that, above and beyond the pity I felt because I wouldn’t be able to share his invaluable insights, you can’t but respect someone’s choices and their reputation. An interview is a gift and if someone wants to revisit their words and change this or that you not only have to grant it, but be grateful for sharing their world in the first place.
Is there not something unique in the format of written interviews? So, say if you interview someone via video or audio the opportunity for an interviewee to self-edit in this same way is limited. So does that not create a contradiction, where the format supersedes the moral imperative?
That is true, but from my experience it depends more upon the interviewee than the format. For someone who has had a lot written about them, has at some point in his or her life had to accept that most of what has or will be written about them will lie outside their control. However, others, whose path so far has been self-censored and self-controlled, still feel as though they possess or are defined by the words they have uttered. Hence, it depends upon what is at stake for a particular human being during a particular slice of time in their life. Academics can be much more cautious and controlled about what is written about them than someone with a public profile, say a director or an artist, because they are less familiar with living within a public sphere, in which their personality can be consumed. As an academic you are measured upon your thoughts and words, whereas as a filmmaker you are judged on your aesthetic body of work and not an accumulation of interviews.
I think it boils down to the fact these are people we admire, who are making things that seem almost otherworldly or sublime, who open up the world to you in an unexpected way and who make things concrete you yourself failed to articulate or face.
You’ve interviewed many deep thinkers in academia and in film. What you are seeking to find out when you turn the questioning on those who normally do the questioning?
Some magazines publish deliberately and strategically very high profile interviews, because they simply sell, but when I read them I become quite early on disinterested in either the questions or answers, and at times even both. This made me wonder and contemplate my dissatisfaction, as I absolutely love reading and watching interviews. What is it that we seek when turning towards an established or even emerging person in their field? I think it boils down to the fact these are people we admire, who are making things that seem almost otherworldly or sublime, who open up the world to you in an unexpected way and who make things concrete you yourself failed to articulate or face. For me, this inevitably led to an overwhelming curiosity of wanting or even needing to understand who this or that person is and what motivated them to produce such magnificent objects and to give them a platform to further articulate their thoughts beyond a template-based inquiry.
Who has made you feel that way?
Oh countless people, often from far back in time, as I am particularly interested in the 60s, though contemporary cinema leaves me often speechless as well, directors such as Haneke, Weerasethakul, Costa, Roy Andersson, P. T. Anderson, Haynes, McQueen, Seidl, Tarr, Puiu, Muntean, Nemes, Strickland, Alex Ross Perry, to name just a few. For example, just recently I watched Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth for the first time and I couldn’t comprehend how someone could come up with a film like this. How could he construct a world that is so different to ours and not just to conceive of it, but have other people act it out and produce something as surreal. You could argue that there is a simultaneous wonder and weariness involved in wanting to interview someone specific, especially someone who’s doing things that you yourself couldn’t possibly do. And yet, after that moment of idolisation, and of reaching out to that person, you talk one-on-one with them and realise they’re not profoundly different to you, but share a similar world view and similar concerns, which is liberating and terrifying at the same time.
Have any of your interviewees ever felt you’ve put them on a platform? That your eagerness glorified them in any way?
I wouldn’t think so. Though having said this, I do worry that I can be very kind in my interviews – maybe even kinder than I am in real life [laughs]. This might at times stem from my admiration for them or from a general appreciation to offer not just their time, but insights into the workings of their mind. I don’t like to put people unnecessarily on the spot, as it is important to me to give people a safe space, in which their ideas can freely unfold and in which they can speak honestly, knowing I won’t exploit the situation nor their subsequent representation. We don’t interview politicians, who we have to challenge, but are in conversation with people who have created outstanding works which we hope to elaborate on.
What sort of questions do you ask?
I find that people in the creative industry are often asked pretty dull questions, which inevitably leads to an uninteresting interview. It’s also demeaning to the interviewee to be asked a set of questions that don’t reciprocate their intelligence. I usually tend to ask questions which are very broad in nature, such as “how do ethics relate to your aesthetics in work x”. I shy away from making questions too specific, otherwise you suffocate the room for answers to unfold freely. Being too narrow in a line of questioning is dissatisfying for the interviewee, and for the reader, it doesn’t honour the intelligence of either. It’s like watching a film that repeats itself too often in order to get a subtle message across, which for obvious reason defeats the point. And often directors aren’t interested in discussing the particularity of their work. Take Pedro Costa, he responds to any question which asks of him to interpret a particular part of his film with “everything is in the film, there is nothing I can add”. I couldn’t agree more with him. Ideally I’ll ask a question, which contains a keyword for that person, and they’ll go off to talk about whatever they want to talk about; this uses the imagination of both the interviewee and the reader.
For an interview style that is so open-ended, how prepared can you be?
Oh, I’m always very prepared. I usually work on a grid that has many topics, which I think the interviewee will find on the one hand interesting and on the other hand he hasn’t been asked before, at least in that framework. It’s true that I haven’t done an interview that has gone exactly in a way that I could have anticipated in advance, which is fantastic, as I like to be surprised myself. However, usually there are answers, which I’m confident will be of interest to a reader, regardless of whether it steers away from my prepared questions.
Philosophy is nothing else than asking questions. Most people ask themselves essential questions without realising they’re being ‘philosophical’
I’ve found the interviews at four by three the most fascinating, but there’s more than that of course?
Bernard and I are keen to do more interviews actually, too many fascinating people are on our list, as we have obviously only started out. four by three also covers substantial reviews, as well as feature articles, and we are working on a few more additions. We want to turn our attention to a more video-based form to reflect the medium in which we are working, whether through curation or through self-produced work. I’m currently conceptualizing my first video essay, which will accompany a forthcoming interview. I’ve read many film history books, which I always found surprisingly underwhelming. The written word isn’t an appropriate format to tell the story of film. When I watched Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: An Odyssey, I thought ‘finally!’, a survey attempting to make justice to the seventh art. Video essays provide a unique opportunity to reflect film’s medium and for four by three to further define its own voice. Ideally we’ll go into print at some point, as I feel that the magazine, at least in its current content, tone and individual article length lends itself to print. But, as long as we’re creating content, which continues to have value to people months or even years after the article has been created, we have done our job, no matter in which medium it was released.
You’ve spoken of quite a few principals that Cureditor and four by three share, in particular lasting value, accessibility and mixed media. I’ve made it my mantra to highlight many of these and particularly lasting value because in digital form it’s notoriously missing. How tough has it been to create something that lasts online?
To be honest it’s tough, and can be very tough at times. Which is not necessarily speaking about my own involvement, but in its current layout, we are not generating revenue, which means we can’t pay our contributors. This is the hard part, that which actually weighs on your mind day in and day out. Everyone wants great content and there are extremely talented people out there, but gratitude doesn’t pay their bills.
Hence, we simply aren’t in a position to publish content as frequently or with everyone we would ideally like, but when we do, we aim for high and lasting quality. When I look around some sites, I see articles that are very short. In some instances, 200 or 300 words. There’s something sad, dissatisfying and dishonest about this, as those sites are assuming the worst about people; targeting the lowest common denominators in order to achieve the highest amount of clickrates. I don’t believe humanity is this dumb. It seems as though the agenda has been set based on a certain set of assumptions and unfortunately troves of publishers have followed. It goes without saying that I understand that a publisher needs to make money, especially if quality work is going to be funded and I am painfully aware of that, as I can’t sustain our momentary model indefinitely. But at the moment I’m shying away from such possible revenue models, as it seems too puritanical. There just have to be other ways.
There’s a modest set of publications working with philosophy as a focus, some are making dense study accessible to everyone, and others don’t even try. What drove your interest in engaging in philosophical debates in an accessible way?
If you take philosophers such as Sartre or Camus, or other post-World War Two philosophers, the general population would hear these voices, would even crave them, but contemporary philosophy has become by and large confined to an academic discipline, or even worse a sort of self-help cocktail, where snippets of serious philosophers and philosophies are watered down beyond recognition.
I don’t believe, as in the case of institutionalised analytic philosophy, that it needs to be so hypothetical, as to remove its relevance from the general public entirely, because we’re all practicing philosophies in our everyday lives – even if you’re not aware of it. Philosophy is nothing else than asking questions. Most people ask themselves essential questions without realising they’re being ‘philosophical’. The perception of philosophy is that it is practiced by isolated bourgeois men who take their own thoughts too seriously. However, my experience is that when you don’t talk in academic terms, all manner of people enjoy it. That’s the premise for four by three, we ask questions about the world, others and ourselves, whether that’s a film, an artwork or a daily practice, we ask why it became to be so and what the consequences might be.
Looking at the topics you’ve covered so far, for example The World and Imagination, these are large concepts that make everyone a subject of your inquiry. I find it interesting as publishing and technology become more niche and make our world even smaller, you have chosen to open it wide. Is there a utopianism at the heart of the site? And is that an optimism of your making?
Probably, luckily and unfortunately. Various people tell me to grow up, or tell me I’m an idealist. If by utopianism you mean some kind of idealised version of the future, then yes, maybe four by three is that. We all unfold in time, continuously reimagining ourselves and the world around us, hoping for the better, while being afraid of change. We have been told to think small, as small as footnotes at times. We are loosing ourselves in details and in shades. However, four by three is meant to show you the spectrum of human existence. If this is utopian, the need for it is deeper than I might have anticipated.
Christine Jakobson's recommendations
Christine Jakobson will be our guest curator all this week, check back each day to see her recommendations.