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Tommy Hartung’s Heart of Darkness: Mutant Artists, Fake News & Insta Filmmaking

Tommy Hartung in Forest Park, Queens. Photo by the author for Art21 Magazine.

2017 Whitney Biennial artist Tommy Hartung burns brightly. Like his films, he’s always humming with ideas, digressions, impulses and jokes. I’ve been in a privileged position to get to know Tommy personally over the years, and I’ve tried to translate some of that essential Tommy-ness into his New York Close Up documentaries. But ultimately films are static and people, especially Tommy, are anything but.

Rather than put him in that cozy documentary box again, I thought for our next project together we’d do something a bit more freeform, something more unmediated and reflective of that ever flowing, informal Tommy I know. So below is an interview we did earlier this summer, after a very warm June walk through Forest Park in Queens. The park is both the site of a previous film with Tommy, and a location that will be featured in his upcoming exhibition with artist Amanda Long.

One other thing: As some of you diehard Art21 fans might know, in conjunction with our Summer of Shorts series, we commissioned Tommy to make a series of social media teases that riff on the longer films we’ve released every Friday. Think of them as an artist’s intervention on our footage. So we also used our chat as an opportunity to give some of these wonderful thirty-second films a little online life after Instagram.

Nick Ravich: OK, Tommy, what are we doing here in Forest Park?

Tommy Hartung: Well, location scouting [and] thinking about my next project. I’ve walked down that path a few times already. I’m thinking about what kind of piece I want to make and how to surround the viewer as if they’re going down that path.

The piece is going to have an animated panoramic forest that’s projected onto three different walls to sort of surround the viewer. The imagery’s going to be stop-motion animated and the narrative will largely be taking the form of a eulogy.

It’s going to be kind of anonymous. You will get the sense that it’s about addiction, the whole opioid [epidemic], but in a kind of more poetic, melancholy way. But aside from that, I wanted to put [viewers] in a place they might not have gone before, and also sort of memorialize a place like that.

NR: There’s a mystery to the forest, even if it’s in the middle of Queens?

TH: And mystery has all these kinds of stories and narratives that can come up. Kind of like that Viagra packet. [Tommy and I found a Viagra packet alongside some abandoned railroad tracks in the park when we were location scouting.] You pick it up. You pick it up like an artifact.

NR: Why is it important for you to bring that out?  Why does your sympathy lie in the forest with people who feel marginalized and want to hide themselves away?

I think artists are kind of mutants of sorts, biologically you know, anomalous

TH: In some ways I think artists are kind of mutants of sorts, biologically you know, anomalous. Outside of a tangible, measurable realm of value, and our society doesn’t typically value things that are outside of something that’s able to be counted, literally counted.

I guess [it’s similar to] so-called primitive cultures with shamans, you know—not that art has to be spiritual, but it is.

NR: Go back to the mutant part. What did you mean by that?

TH: I’m an art educator, and art academics saved my life. But I think artists are a biological phenomenon.

I don’t think that they’re just following a formula. Like, oh I went to school, got my MBA, and now I can go you know, run a business. I don’t think being an artist works like that at all. I think art schools are in some ways like magic schools—a Harry Potter sort of thing.

They’re places where people can come together and have a similar mutation. Instead of chasing girls at sixteen, we can be doing some weird thing, making some weird thing in my garage or something.

Because [artists] are willing to take on a lot more risk than the average person. Just with their livelihood and their lives in general. And ultimately being an artist is not such a great lifestyle. People romanticize the artist’s lifestyle, but there’s nothing really romantic about it. But people love to [romanticize it] in order to sell it, you know? I think that as a result artists are on the fringes of society, so it’s more likely that an artist is going to go down there, out there and just paint something, you know? Like all that graffiti…

NR: So how do you bring those ideas into your work, and what we’re sort of experiencing collectively as a world right now?

TH: I don’t know what to do. I’ve lived under an economic collapse my entire life. And I’m just kind of looking around to see if it’s starting to happen to everyone else. I do think that there’s way more homeless than I’ve ever seen in the city. And the opioid addiction, last I checked it’s killing hundreds of people every day. At this point, it’s getting close to Vietnam War levels in casualties.

So, I haven’t really been able to process this very well. The thing about the economic collapse, is that it’s not going to look like the Depression.

NR: What’s it gonna look like?

TH: I don’t think it’s gonna look that much different [from where we are now].

NR: Like it’s in plain sight.

TH: Our world has become so good at the image, and the illusion of everything… Even my car is obese—it’s the nicest car I’ve ever driven.

NR: We’re going down a depressing road right now. Let’s lighten things up. Talk about those films you’ve been making for our Instagram—the ones based on our Summer of Shorts films.

TH: I don’t watch them.

NR: Meaning?

TH: I don’t watch them.

NR: You don’t watch what?

TH: Watch the movies (laughs).

NR: The films you make or the ones that we send you?

TH: The ones you send me. What I do is I watch them silently. I keep it all contained in the iPad. I kind of scrub through, and I sort of take these impulsive moments, you know? I just try thinking about the repetitive things that everyone does. Because a lot of making art is about repetition, right?

And your body language can sort of determine what that repetition is. But also I guess, the actual process of making art, like painting—stroke after stroke—is a repetitive thing. It’s reflected in their work.

…just like a lot of my work it kind of opens up a lot of these very tightly controlled systems of production

I have maybe five or six different apps that I like the different things that they do. But none of them do all these things. So I’ll cycle through all these different apps and there are these little preset effects that will get screwed up. These little apps are made by people that aren’t big companies so they crash all the time (laughs), they do weird things, and just like a lot of my work it kind of opens up a lot of these very tightly controlled [systems] of production.

Tommy Hartung in Forest Park, Queens. Photo by the author for Art21 Magazine.

By cycling through all these little apps, it leaves more up for chance—more things that you wouldn’t expect to happen can happen with it. And there’s always that line where something has to stop before its gets totally obliterated.

I really started getting into Instagram—something would happen, something [news] would come out and I just wanted to make a comment, you know? It’s like you would on Facebook but totally visual, even if the visual has text. Just to sort of immediately put something out there.

Because a lot of the images I would make, there wouldn’t even really by words for it, you know? It was just like the Jared Kushner thing. He’s in a rainbow suit with a woman, and I mean, what does it say about him really (laughs), you know?

And I really like not being convoluted. But convoluted imagery can really play out well on Instagram.

NR: Confusing can be meaningful.

TH: And then that gets into [this whole idea] of fake news. Fake news is really getting a bad rap (laughs). But even outside of something like The Daily Show, can’t fake news also have a positive direction too?

NR: How’s that?

I think a lot of art is lies. And those lies can be really captivating

TH: Well, you can put an idea out there or lie about something and have it be art. I think a lot of art is lies. And those lies can be really captivating. Especially now that the president himself on a daily, regular basis puts out fake news with his tweets. Even if people believe that it’s something that it’s not, the thing about the whole new era of fake news is that what makes it fake is what’s interesting. Because it’s not fake to millions of other people.

NR: You need to whisper, man. Everyone’s gonna agree with you (laughs).

TH: We say that it’s fake news because we don’t like him, right? But objectively, it’s fake news because the media tells us it’s fake. But then Trump is like, “Well, the media’s fake news. The media is just saying this for their purpose.” The fact that you can take real information and create some kind of fantasy out of it is interesting for me. It’s at least based on a true story, right?

Like a lot of my work, I’ll take someone or something, and I’ll create some kind of fantasy about it—originally it was based on a real person or something real that happened, but I turned it into something else. Fantasy’s not even a good word for it. Fiction’s not really a good word for it. I’m not really sure what to call it with my work. But I’ve always in some ways seen what I do as kind of [the work] of a documentary filmmaker.

So when I’m doing these Instagram posts for you guys, that’s kind of the closest I can get to someone else telling me what story to work with. But I’m still an artist. Like the way something can get reported as an op-ed, that’s where the art can come out of.

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