There is a lot of meat to the curvacious tush in front of me. Its thickness is partly due to the display of three layers of colour – red, green and blue – with which the artist, Fil Rüting has given unthinkable depth to Sally Field’s cheeks. Rüting’s rendering of her sultry pose from the 1976 film Stay Hungry is likely to freeze spectators in their tracks. Similar prints of other obscure movies hang throughout his Los Angeles home, large enough that they look like he’s got 40-inch TVs marked with a distinct tri-chromatic touch at every turn. Rüting has tinkered with sight and sound for over two decades, making his mark in his birthplace of Sydney, before taking on the LA art scene.
How many years have you been making art?
About 20 years. I was showing in Sydney in the early ‘90s. I came out of high school and went straight into art school. I really started painting because of skate culture. I always liked making skate decks for my friends when I was 13 or 14. A lot of it was graphic stuff from back in the day, it was punk rock bands.
What were some of those bands?
All the classics: LA hardcore, some Sydney thrash. Anything you could find in Thrasher magazine back then, stuff that you’d find on flyers. It was a lot of pop iconography appropriation. I always had a natural interest in art history. It just crossed over from there. The school I went to [Sydney College of the Arts] was a more conceptual based program. It was a good route for learning cultural studies and different forms of making objects, but also mainly geared around the discourse of idea. That led me to want to obviously travel somewhere else and be in a bigger pool.
I came out here to go to Cal Arts to do graduate school. Before I did that, I deferred for a year and went traveling around the world. I went to India for six months, South East Asia, Nepal and Eastern Europe. I ended my backpacking trip in Los Angeles, and went to school right after the Northridge earthquake [of 1994].
I guess that was a good time to come back.
It was good. It was also kind of a crazy time because LA was a mess after the earthquake. So there was just a lot of chaos. It was a weird time to be at school because everything got fractured; people left town. It was kind of interesting to see who came in at that time to be in that mess.
In the rebuilding phase?
Yeah it was a bit of rebuilding going on everywhere. It was an interesting time. The teachers at the school back then were really an interesting dynamic. Cal Arts is a good school for visiting lecturers, and it has a really big international presence. So a lot of foreign artists would come there. Going to art school is always about who you meet. It was a great point to be in the world for an American base, for being exposed to the art world in general.
I think that a lot of your experiences are derived from Australia.
A lot of the formative [ones]: my ability to process things comes from all of that. And the two cultures are really similar. I guess because one’s a convict—a rejected culture that’s built from an idea of rejecting the old culture and being rejected from the old culture. The American experience is more about creating a new one based on some sort of idealistic old world beliefs. We don’t really have the religious outcast problem in Australia [laughs]. We’re just rejected from every person. That creates sort of a different perspective on things. I think it also allows for meanings to be more about how they’re delivered and less about the dogma behind them.
Regarding terminology, there’s ‘multimedia artist’ and there’s ‘mixed media artist’. How do you describe yourself, if you had to?
I just call myself a conceptual artist. Mixed media was just traditionally applied to the idea of decoupage, like early cut-up stuff. New Media I guess is what I would be; what I would associate more with that post performance.
Post-fluxus. I don’t know. I actually don’t mind using the term video artist. A lot of people who predominantly do video despise the term because it is sort of a low totem pole thing. Video work is harder to collect; it’s mass producible.
You can do anything?
You can use anything. A lot of my work tends to focus around questions of how objects produce many. I like the idea where the functionality falls apart, and makes new meaning, unintentionally usually. I was very interested in analog devices and their translation from analog to digital at the time. In analog stuff we were always sort of aware of that background noise making additional things like scratches on a record or a bi-product of the manufacturing of something that ends up being unique and interesting. When it went to digital it all sort of got hidden.
Microchips. The microchip can do the work of an entire system of belts and levers, things like that.
Initially I was doing a lot of disruptive video loop stuff where I was layering the same video over and over upon itself and creating sort of a digital-analog mess of colour forms. That turned into fascination with cassette tapes and drawings with cassette tape loops. I did a whole painting show about my record collection. Actually one of the first shows I did when I was a kid, I was 19. Quite often on the indie labels—the small labels—when they did a run [of records] they would sign a message into each one. It would just be like a line from a hip-hop song or just a bit of poetry. So I took all of those and wrote them down and painted the albums they came from and what the message was that was hidden into the scratch.
It was all about objectifying the meaning and everything within what vinyl was at the time. There’s definitely a group of people who work in these sort of things. That record shift into digital is one of the big things that took me from painting to conceptual practice, and eventually led me to doing a lot of video work.
Tell me about the origin of your video work.
When I started doing video , there was no real digital editing yet. We learned how to do everything analog, which in art school is great because you already have the conceptual thinking process. So editing is sort of a logical extension of it, especially it’s linear editing, you have to think about how the whole thing is going to fall together. Most often, people think of it in moments and fragments. You don’t have to think about it holistically as a heavy concept anymore. That overall long thought process has been erased.
If painting is analogue then how does digital fit into that now?
The paintings come out of frozen moments out of the videos that deal with colour separation. The trichromacy stuff that I do is all about the human perception of colour and light. I came to that stuff because I just got fascinated with how do we see colour and why we see colour between different things. There’s this classic way colour is produced in film, to separate the three spectrums—the trichromatic spectrums which our eyes can see—Red. Green. Blue. So that’s the main reason why the paintings relate. There’s something about this body of work that kind of reflects a lot of those machine-y, functional elements you think about in both of those processes. When ideas shift into a different mediation, more can be revealed if there’s a certain focus and a balance between the form.
You’re able to see not only the history of film that you’ve frozen in time, but you’re also seeing the process in which film was made.
Right. Those projects are called ‘Tri Repetae’. It’s a series I’ve been working on for about 10 years in different forms. There’s ‘Tri Repetae 2002’, ‘Tri Repetae 2009’, and it’s a compendium, long format video, montages of different loops I’ve made from cinema. They use that reverse Technicolour process. That idea of reconstructing the actual colour within the object: not adding an effect, not changing it, just taking a looped section of the film, shifting the colour in its spatial relationship. We all know where the story exists, but if you lift a loop out and make that individual loop present just for its meaning for what it’s actually doing as its fragment of the story, it’s like a new word or a new phrase or a new thing comes out of that. I find a lot of appreciation in it. I feel like I’m rearranging the very elements of something in order to allow it to be.
Words by Richard ‘Treats’ Dryden