Evan Mast Interview
The following interview was conducted between Brackett Creek Exhibitions (Tessa Granowski) and Evan Mast over the phone on July 11, 2022.
Brackett Creek Exhibitions (BCE): How did the landscape films originate? Where was the first film made?
Evan Mast (EM): The first one was made in China around 2017. And then it took me a long time to figure out how to edit it because at that point I hadn't figured out the format. And then the second one was in Taiwan and now the third one is in Pakistan.
BCE: How did the idea start?
EM: Well, I had been trying to figure out a way to make some kind of project out of traveling for a while. I previously had done some trips where I was collecting footage for music videos. And then as I started to develop some of the different directions with it, I got interested in wanting to do something that wasn't just about supporting music, but was going to be its own body of work.
BCE: And when you say a long time to figure it out, was that years, or how long?
EM: It was at least a year with that first one because when my brother and I went to China, we walked all over these cities for a month. I shot hundreds of clips… I was mostly focused on getting shots of barber poles. At that point, I didn't know how it was all going to fit together. I hadn't conceived of the collage technique at all back then. So, they just kind of sat on a hard drive and I had hundreds of images of barbershop poles. At that time, I tried editing them in different ways and I didn't want it to just be a few seconds of each clip and then moving on to the next one. There was something very unsatisfying about that. So, it was like an epiphany one day that I could just start collaging them together and it felt really cohesive. I made a short piece and thought, oh, that actually feels kind of natural. It was really a process of trial and error before I realized that I could keeping going and make one long, continuous image with it.
BCE: Just like the barbershop pole, when it's moving, it just goes on and on.
Landscape #1, previously on view at Brackett Creek Exhibitions, Montana from September 28 - October 25, 2020
EM: Yeah. I mean, it's such a labor-intensive way to work with video that I don't think I could have conceived of the whole idea all at once. It was very much little-by-little in figuring it out.
And with the China one, because I didn't know what I was going to do with the footage, I shot it very differently. Once I had figured out the technique, when I went back to shoot in Taiwan and Pakistan, the approach of actually just collecting the images was very different, because I had an idea of how I would eventually combine them.
BCE: Yeah. I mean, once I learned how to actually photograph art, my process of photography really changed—the lighting, the ISO and whatnot. And then it made the editing process go from like 2 hours on each photo to more like 5 minutes.
And a couple of years ago, you got footage out West around Montana and Wyoming, yes?
EM: I shot a bunch of footage when I was up there two summers ago. I used a little bit of it for a music video, but I don’t think I’ll turn any of the footage into one of the Landscape videos. I get really excited about the landscapes out there, but they don't really translate in the same way. There's something about combining the natural elements that isn't as interesting to me as working with the urban landscapes.
BCE: Yeah, there's maybe a lot more happening visually on a microscopic scale.
EM: And also with nature, juxtaposing one thing against another, everything kind of already works together naturally anyway. Everything is just so perfectly suited to combine with everything else. It's harder to find tension in it.
BCE: Right, that makes sense. It is pretty contiguous, the scale and color palette all kind of stays about the same, mountains hit the sky around the same point…
So, when you were out here in Montana two summers ago, how long were you out here for? And that's when you started working on your E.VAX album?
EM: That was around June to October, 2020. I had already been working on the album before getting to Montana. Some of the songs had started when I was working on production projects for other people and ideas that didn't work for other people. So, I wanted to develop them into something on my own. And then when the pandemic was really happening in New York, I was spending a lot of time in my studio in Brooklyn just sort of casting a broad net for ideas and trying lots of different things. By the time I got out to Montana, I had a big bank of rough ideas.
BCE: Or of fish, if you were casting a broad net. Ha, ha.
EM: Right, or I probably had stingrays… one of those Brooklyn stingrays.
BCE: Ok, so back to the films. Is there a particular time of day that is ideal for shooting the films? Did that change after the China one as well?
EM: It kind of depends on the place. You sort of have to modify the approach depending on where you go. In Pakistan, the cities are so densely populated, that to try and shoot in the middle of the day, just like a random street corner or something, it was really difficult to find enough space to even put the tripod down because there's so much foot traffic and motorcycle traffic.
BCE: Was Pakistan the busiest spot that you went to?
EM: Yeah, definitely. Karachi was probably the busiest of the cities in Pakistan as well. And people were really interested in the camera there. People were constantly asking me to take their portrait. During normal hours, it was pretty difficult to just gather the kind of images that I was looking for, so I ended up waking up before sunrise and then I’d try and get out of the hotel and be filming by the time the sun was coming out. And there'd still be people out at that time, but not as many. But a lot of the images in that video come from market areas a couple of hours before the markets were open. So that's why you get a lot of shuttered metal doors. And 2 hours later, it would be completely filled with people.
BCE: Yeah. And you did end up taking some portraits and ones that you even included in the final video.
Landscape #3, film still (portrait)
EM: I mean, I took a ton of portraits because whenever somebody asked me to do it, I would always do it. But it was funny because I think people saw me, they thought I was taking still photos, but I was taking videos the entire time. So, I would just set up a tripod, turn the video on and then they would be posing and smiling. I would sort of pretend like I was still making adjustments on the camera or something and try and keep them engaged for as long as possible.
BCE: I would love to hear the audio on those moments.
EM: Yeah. But then they would inevitably get bored. You can see them smiling and then after 10 seconds, they stop smiling and look away. I included a couple of those portraits in the video. There's probably 100 or so more that I didn't include.
BCE: I mean, obviously, audio was probably recording while you were taking the videos, but you removed all of that intentionally and then you compose additional scores for this film and for your other Landscapes as well, yes?
EM: Right, yeah, I keep trying different approaches with the sound. There’s a bunch of improvised ambient electronic scores for this one. I made, I think, five different recordings that are about 20 minutes each, and they run on a different cycle from the video.
BCE: You were saying when you started to figure these films out, you wanted them to be something that stood alone from the music. So, in this sense, the music comes second after the video is already made.
EM: Yeah, definitely. And I'm still kind of not sure what works. I think once I get the video set up in a space, I know that I need some audio element there to kind of keep people in the room. Otherwise, it feels awkward to sit there in silence and watch the video. The audio is important, but it’s also not the focus. I think I’m still trying to find the right balance with that.
BCE: Well, how do you think people watching silent movies felt? Maybe they just got used to the silence.
EM: Yeah. I've seen a few silent films in theaters before. It's very hard to do that in 2022.
One of my favorite directors, the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, the first half of his career is all silent films. I've seen all of his movies that has sound, but then, the silent ones, I've only seen a handful of them because it's just kinda difficult if you live your whole life watching movies with sound to go and try and watch one without. It’s been rewarding when I’ve done it, but I’m not always up for it.
BCE: Yeah, it's a really difficult meditation.
BCE: Do you remember which silent movie that you saw in theaters?
EM: Yeah, it was a couple of years ago. There was some kind of anniversary festival happening at IFC, maybe like a whole bunch of his movies in the same month. And a couple of the ones I saw were silent. I mean, I still enjoyed them, but I was going to a lot of the early matinees and I definitely remember falling asleep during some of them. It’s kind of my secret weapon, too. If I'm having insomnia, I'll put on an Ozu.
BCE: I feel the same about Tarkovsky.
EM: I’m not sure I’ve ever made it all the way through a Tarkovsky.
BCE: [laughs] I don't think so either. But with Ozu, a lot of his movies are shot at such a specifically low angle, as if you are sitting on the floor. Did he influence you in any way when you're thinking about the height of the camera when you're filming? Or in any other way?
EM: I don't know. I always liked the camera work in his films so much, so I bet that's ingrained somewhere in the back of my mind, for sure. And I love how he used B-roll in between scenes. Like, you have long scenes with lots of dialogue, and then the next scene would be the same, but then in between, you just have a couple of random shots in the neighborhood or something to kind of give you some context. And they're always, beautifully composed. He even made his own signage for some of those shops and things. It’s highly arranged.
Emiko Yagumo and Takeshi Sakamoto in A Story of Floating Weeds (浮草物語) directed by Yasujirō Ozu - 1934. Image courtesy of Wikicommons (public domain).
BCE: Really? That's cool. I’ll look for the Evan signs in your future Landscape films.
So, you’ve produced music for the likes of Kanye, Jay-Z, or Kid Cudi. Do you see your music production hat and artist hat is two separate hats?
EM: Yeah, I think so. I like being able to switch between the two things. If it's been too much time on one side, I can start to get tunnel vision. I wouldn’t say I get burned out, but I can kind of get too focused or something and have a hard time seeing the broader ideas. And then if I spent, say, a month on music and kind of got into that zone, and then I can go to video and it feels fresh and new again yeah. And then I want to go back to the music.
BCE: You pull up the different computer program, it feels all fresh again.
EM: Well, that's the nice thing about the video project, too. The editing part is a lot of screen time, for sure, but the filming part is a really nice antidote to all the computer time because I can just literally be on my feet walking around for 12 hours a day, every day.
BCE: Yeah. So how did you choose the cities you went to in Pakistan for Landscape #3—Karachi, Peshawar, Lahore, and Rawalpindi?
EM: I started thinking about going to Pakistan during the Pandemic when nobody could go anywhere, and I was spending a lot of time on Google Street View and looking at any place that I was interested in. And I would start clicking around and see what places looked like and put down markers if there were neighborhoods that were particularly interesting. I did a fair amount of research in just trying to find interesting-looking spaces, and that gave me a very rough idea of which cities I wanted to check out. Once I was there, I got a pretty good idea of what was and wasn’t that interesting to me. And there was so much difference between the cities in Pakistan, for instance, Peshawar and Karachi are incredibly different from each other.
BCE: Karachi is in the North and warmer?
EM: Karachi is actually in the South on the coast and yeah, it's a bit warmer.
BCE: That is the balloon scene, right? The only time there’s open air in Landscape #3.
Installation view, Landscape #3 at Brackett Creek Editions NY
EM: Yeah, that was from Karachi. Quite a lot of the video came from Karachi. And my plans would change all the time. Just to walk from the hotel to the neighborhood I'd staked out… I would see something else on the way and then turn down that street and then that would lead to another thing and many hours later you're in a completely different part of the city than you intended.
BCE: How many battery packs did you carry around?
EM: Well, fortunately, I had a new camera for this trip and only carried around maybe three or four. It was quite a bit more with my old camera.
BCE: I can only imagine. So, we have two new screenprints in the show that we made in Baltimore. How did you map out the screen prints?
EM: Basically, I just scanned through the video and found moments that felt like they worked just as a composition, as a single frame and then used that as a starting point. And it was a similar process to the editing where I'm masking out different shapes that are in the video images. With the screen print, I was just flattening things down to a single color for particular shapes, and then finding a composition that felt like it worked. And I went through that process with a bunch of different frames from the video and then just narrowed it down to the ones that seem to be the best.
Evan Mast, Landscape #3 (8:44), edition 16/16
BCE: Yeah. Almost like another kind of collage. And you have a giant collage in your house that you made a few years ago. Is collage work something you were doing prior to these videos?
EM: Yeah, I used to do a lot of physical collaging. It's really an entry point to making work for me. There's something about it that's easier than painting. For one, it's less messy. And also, you have something to react to inherently because you're grabbing something from a newspaper, from a magazine or whatever, so you can react rather than having to conjure something from nothing.
But I used to make them when I was spending most of my time on music and touring. When I would have a stretch time at home, I would get into collage because I was trying to see what would happen if I put a lot of energy into a visual place for an extended period of time and allowing the value system to emerge and getting in touch with what kind of compositions I'm drawn to. Collage is a really immediate way to do that… and I would do hundreds of small collages. For a long time, in my kitchen, I had this grid of small collages and I was always swapping out different ones and figuring out the language with it. And then that eventually led to doing this giant one that you're talking about in the bedroom.
BCE: Yeah. It seems like a natural transition into the video because you're figuring out how to make a seamless composition of videos that are from entirely different settings, which is its own form of collage.
EM: Yeah, there's something about drawing a shape onto a photographic image that's fun to me. So, yeah, it felt pretty natural to bring that to the video.
BCE: And so how many video clips are you working with to make the final video? Did that increase over time with each new video?
EM: Yeah, I think so. It's probably mostly related to the amount of time I spend in a place. I was in Pakistan a little over three weeks and I think I got around 900 clips. The previous trip was Taiwan, and I think I was there for just under two weeks. And that was only maybe 500 or 600 clips. Yeah, but both of those trips, I really wasn't doing anything but shooting video, so I got quite a lot.
BCE: So how does a foreign landscape necessitate a film like this instead of something familiar? It's not like you're making these videos in Brooklyn.
EM: Yeah, during the Pandemic, when I couldn't travel anywhere, I tried to make a project in Brooklyn, but I think there's something about walking around Brooklyn... I do think New York is really interesting. I love walking around New York, but I have too many associations with everything. There's almost too much history and meaning attached to everything. It's hard to get to the same place mentally of making the other videos.
BCE: How long have you lived in Brooklyn?
EM: 21 years.
BCE: And you've been in the same place for 15 of those, right?
EM: Yeah, but I've been in the same neighborhood the entire time. But then, I guess your patterns sort of change over time in the same place. In the beginning, I was working in Manhattan near Wall Street, so I knew that route really well. And then I had my studio in the Navy Yard for a while, so I knew that route really well. And now I have a new route to my current studio.
When I'm traveling, I can go to a place and I'll give myself the time and the focus to just do this one thing for that amount of time, maybe a couple of weeks. I think you kind of have to give it that level of attention and energy, and I don't know if it'd be possible to do that in a place where I live. There’s just too much going on that's already part of my life.
BCE: Yeah, that makes sense. With this type of art making, you're necessitating the action of leaving the studio to come back and make the piece instead of holing up and starting from the studio, so you have to have access to the bigger world.
EM: That's definitely a big part of why I'm drawn to it. It's a big contrast from what the rest of my life is like. I spend so much time in the studio, whether it's on music or video editing. It's really nice to have a project where I can be outside all day and just have my eyes open and just allow that to be the thing.
BCE: I like that answer and I think that’s a nice place to end the interview. Thank you, Evan.