Written by Therese Möllenhoff
As It Lays, 2012. Video set installed at Le Consortium, Dijon, 2013. Photo: Zarko Vijatovic
As It Lays
Between 2011 and 2012 Alex Israel recorded the first season of his self-produced, web-based talk show As It Lays. The title references the novel Play It as It Lays (1970) by Joan Didion, while it also plays on the acronym for Los Angeles, LA. In each of the 33 episodes Israel interviews a celebrity. The subjects of the interviews all have a connection to Los Angeles, and represent a broad spectrum of Hollywood’s cast of characters, including actors, directors, authors, musicians, stylists and TV stars, ranging in age from young to old. The selection forms an extremely eclectic collection of figures from the city of dreams: musicians from Paul Anka to Marilyn Manson, actors from James Caan to Melanie Griffith, from newer (but perhaps already passé) reality stars such as Whitney Port and Adrienne Maloof to strange LA characters such as Kato Kaelin from the O. J. Simpson court case and billboard star Angelyne.
"Today, the portrait is the celebrity interview, and the greatest portraitist may be Oprah."
Israel regards the programme as part of the portrait genre of art history, executed in contemporary language – the talk show – as launched through the contemporary distribution channel – the Internet. With As It Lays Israel wanted to deviate from the conventional talk show’s focus on the interviewees’ current activities, such as films they were acting in or products they were launching, and focus instead on questions that would uncover something about their personalities. As the programme’s host, Israel always wears sunglasses, and in a palpably deadpan manner he reads aloud questions from small, white cards. The ostensibly random questions range from the banal to the existential: What is the meaning of life, and what are your thoughts on energy drinks? Without expression or follow-up questions from the host, situations arise that are both comical and revealing, and that feature an obvious ambiguity between concepts such as genuineness and parody, authenticity and acting. Israel himself insists that the intentions of the talk show are sincere, and rejects any notion of irony or satire. Even if the selection of assorted celebrities of varying topical interest might be perceived as ironic, or as a statement about the celebrity culture in and of itself, the artist insists that the interviewees have been chosen out of a genuine admiration for the imprint they have made on the city’s culture. As It Lays seems to play on such dualities. Circulating the programme on the Internet rather than solely in a restricted and self-identified critical art context opens the door to a variety of interpretations and double meanings. While some viewers encounter the programme as observers in a space devoted to art, others come across it by chance on YouTube. The unique alternation of the series between comic entertainment and critical disclosure, vis à vis the artist’s ostensible homage, seems to expose the mechanisms of the genre the programme has appropriated and of the entertainment system to which it belongs.
“When I was making ‘As It LAys’ I was thinking a lot about [Alfred] Hitchcock, and his comments equating actors to cattle. He spoke to a cold reality that lies at the core of the Hollywood system. I wanted to pay homage to his contributions and his insight in my work.”
As It Lays can be viewed as following in the footsteps of Andy Warhol’s films such as Screen Test (1964-66) – filmed portraits of celebrities and people with “star quality”. Israel also shares Warhol’s perhaps equally ambiguous insistence on clichés and superficiality. Despite an emphasis on his sincere and unwavering admiration for Hollywood’s dream machine and its players, Israel is also aware of the downside of the system, and has spoken of how Alfred Hitchcock’s statement that actors are like cattle was one of his guiding principles in his work with As It Lays. This “cold reality that lies at the core of the Hollywood system”, where people are sold as products – stars and celebrities – is what As It Lays manages, in an ambiguous manner, to reveal through its defiance of convention and its provocative approach to authenticity and staging. By breaking away from the conventional forms and actors’ expectations of the talk show format, As It Lays seems to reveal what Israel himself has suggested: that the people he interviews can in many ways be seen as characters who are playing a self-imposed, stereotypical role. Each subject of his interviews is asked the same final question: “What do you want the world to know about [interviewee’s name]?” The vast majority of the celebrities, people who ostensibly live by pursuing the attention of others, answer: “Nothing.” This conclusion seems to underscore how the profiling and self-compromising dynamic is nothing other than deception and acting, and that the star – a person whom we perceive as embodying certain authentic and genuine qualities – is as much of a persona as Israel’s own clear construction of the role of TV host.
While some of the earliest episodes were recorded in the homes of the interviewees, Israel eventually had the opportunity to create a recording studio at Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, where he designed a TV studio with backdrops for the recordings. The empty set has been immortalised as an installation in the exhibition. The two empty interview chairs are placed on an oval, carpeted stage under a sign with the As It LAys typography. The entire design of the stage has been inspired by the aesthetics of the American breakfast TV of the 1980s, and the colour-graded surfaces imitate the effects used in fictional studio lighting. The painterly elements that appear on the stage are the origin of several of Israel’s well-known series of works. Towering in the background is one of the Sky Backdrop paintings, which with their graduated blue and pink hues imitate the California sunsets. Four works from Alex Israel’s Flats series are placed around the circular stage: curved, painted panels, like the movable backdrops of the film branch, that can be set up to create a scene. “All the world’s a stage” – a famous quote from Shakespeare – seems to be an appropriate slogan for Alex Israel’s artistic stagings. The overall impression is that the abandoned TV studio emerges as a painterly emblem of the staged action that has taken place on the set.