Josh Kline’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles, at the nonprofit West Hollywood exhibition space LAXART, centers around the U.S. premiere AdaptationA 10-minute film about New York City’s rising waters. Made with scale-model buildings and boats and shot on 16mm film, the work features a moody, melancholic score by electronic-music-maker Galcher Lustwerk and voiceover readings by actors making their way through a city sunken in despair.
Along with the film, Kline’s show—which runs through April 9—also includes related photo works, sculpture, and installation. The work is a continuation to an ongoing project titled Climate Change first shown at 47 Canal gallery in New York in 2019 and, as an exhibition description designates it, “part of a larger cycle of installations concerned with the unfolding political, economic, technological, and biological changes that will shape life in the 21st century.”
Learn more about AdaptationIt is shown in the context it is being shown. ARTnewsInterview conducted via email with Kline
ARTnews – The film has a distinct look and sensibility. What were your reference points when you first thought of it?
Josh Kline:In 2019, I was thinking a lot during pre-production. Alien and the original Blade Runner—both of which used analog special effects like scale models, matte paintings, blue screen, etc. These techniques are more grounded in reality than CGI—there are real objects with real lights shining on them. This approach is free from the negative associations that digital image manipulation tools are subject to, particularly in relation to disinformation and post-truth technologies. They’re more honest about engineering a fiction. I also love the really creative low-budget special effects used in BBC sci-fi from the ’60s and ’70s. Working with these tools is something that I’ve wanted to do for years. The style of CGI animation that’s defined so much video art in the last 10 years (including my own work) had become a negative reference for me. It is something I want to avoid.
The costume design is Alien Blade Runner is really interesting—their approach to portraying working people in space. My thinking has been influenced by science fiction novels by Kim Stanley Robinson and Ursula K. Le Guin, which both often depict labor in the near future. So much science fiction comes equipped with main characters who are heroes—single individuals or small groups of individuals who change the world. I want to get out of heroes. Adaptation isn’t a film about a special person saving the world, it’s about ordinary people who will have to clean up after a catastrophe they haven’t made—and live inside it. The same way we’re all living through the Covid pandemic.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about French Impressionism and its historical context over the last few years. Paintings of the French bourgeoisie from the late nineteenth century at their leisure on their days off. In Adaptation, I wanted to show working people in their time off—at rest—even if it is inside a dystopia. Work is an ugly necessity in this world. I wanted to let the imagination do the work and show the crew at the centre of the film working off the clock in their own time. After everything we’ve all seen in the last two years, I think it’s crystal clear for everyone now that the Protestant work ethic is a fraud—part of a cruel pyramid scheme masquerading as an economy.
ARTnews – How did you communicate with Galcher Lustwerk about what you wanted in a soundtrack? What language did you use to talk it through?
Kline: I’ve been a fan of Galcher Lustwerk’s music for some time and had been listening to his album InformationThere is a lot to be excited about in 2019. Galcher mostly makes minimal techno and house, but this album starts with an ambient track that’s bursting with feeling. I love the sounds and music he uses. In my early conversations with Galcher, in 2020, about composing music for the film, I was referencing his own music a lot, basically asking him to make an ambient soundtrack—and sharing which of his tracks I responded to. Some of the other references I shared with Galcher in our early conversations were A Guy Called Gerald’s album Black Secret TechnologyThis album is available for purchase Las VegasBurger/Ink, Wolfgang Voigt, and music by Gas (also Voigt), Drexciya (and Vangelis).
Galcher provided me with some initial ideas, which were very minimal. The drafts had this feeling of loneliness, isolation, and sadness that really spoke to not only the mood of the film but the feeling of being in quarantine during Covid (at least my experience of it). He came back later with more embellished versions, but in the end we stripped it all back to his original sketches—which were spot on.
ARTnews: How did the title become yours? Adaptation?
Kline: AdaptationIt was initially a working title but it lasted longer than any other ideas. The film is about these people who have no choice other than to get on with it in a radically transformed world—in most ways a devastated world. When scientists talk about Climate Adaptation, it means accepting the reality that it’s too late to reverse much of the damage that’s been done—that a great deal of change is now baked in. The Paris Climate Agreement targets that governments around the world are unlikely to meet assume a dramatic rise in sea level and hundreds of millions more deaths. That’s the least bad scenario we’re facing later this century. Climate Adaptation means building sea walls, relocating populations, basically planning realistically based on the science—moving beyond denial and wishful thinking. I believe in the following: AdaptationIn particular, the last two-years have shown us how to save as much and prevent as much suffering. It’s about claiming dignity, joy, hope, and some basic humanity in the middle of an inherited dystopia.
ARTnews: There’s a line of dialogue in the film in which someone says, “There is oxygen in the water. But not for you.” What were you trying to evoke with that?
Kline: It’s about the flood water that’s coming as a kind of denial. Human beings breathe oxygen—without it we die. There’s actually a lot of oxygen in sea water—and it sustains animal life. We are not the only ones who need oxygen. The oxygen becomes a metaphor for New York—which for me and 8 million other people is home. Flooding it to six feet high will cause it to flood completely. All the sidewalks, subways, and infrastructure that make it a functioning city are gone. It becomes impossible for anyone to live here. New York ceases to be a human place and becomes part of the sea—a place for animals with gills instead of for animals with lungs. People in the future will be able to visit, but they won’t be able to stay. They won’t be able to make a home here. Because of my asthma and the masks that keep me safe in so many places, the pandemic has made it more difficult to breathe.
ARTnews: The press release reads: “Originally intended as an image of resilience and survival, as the global health crisis continues, the film takes on additional meanings in relation to our current moment in history.” How did it change in your eyes, and did your recognition of it in-process affect the way you finished it?
Kline: I shot the footage in 2019 and finished the rough cut in 2020, before lockdown. I did a second pass through the edit during lockdown in Brooklyn in April and May 2020. My feelings about what the film meant had changed dramatically. The silent empty city, the scene where the divers disinfect themselves after coming out of the water—this all suddenly felt like it was about the present as well as the future. The cast were already supposed to be the equivalent of construction workers in the future—climate refugees returning to work in their former home. They were essential workers when they started working on the film in 2020. All this led me to record new voiceovers and write the text that will accompany the film. I sent microphones and directed the actors to Zoom in summer 2020.
ARTnews – What medium of film interests you most, in terms if you are considering using it for your own projects?
Kline:Film was something I studied in college. I went to Temple University in Philadelphia for film school. I then worked for 10+ years as a curator of video art at Electronic Arts Intermix. Since then, the moving image has been the foundation of everything that I do as an artists. I was against film in college. I saw film as anti-democratic than video. As a college student, it was more expensive to work with film and in some ways more wasteful. Now, though, working in the context of crewed shoots, collaborating with cinematographers who know how to work with film, the economics of shooting film or video aren’t that different—for film you just shoot less and plan ahead so you can be more economical with footage.
I feel like video from the last decade has a very specific look—slick HD video, hyperrealistic CGI animation, and graphics inspired by and critiquing (or glamorizing) commercial imagery. This kind of video art can be found everywhere. Film as a medium, because of its long use in cinema—and in sci-fi movies—is largely free of those associations. Film can look anything, even if video art looks like 2013. It isn’t tied to any time. There’s also a deep nostalgia that comes with film that I want to tap into and work with. I wanted the audience to feel a nostalgia for the past and the possibility of its disappearance. Because of how omnipresent it is on social media and how it’s being manipulated to spread lies and disinformation, video feels less honest now than film, and I didn’t want to make another work about deception.
ARTnews: How much or little do you think of elements in a film as “sculptural”?
Kline: I approach filmmaking (or creating videos) the same way I approach sculpture or installation. The difference is that with moving image works, the audience can’t walk around inside the work—the camera and the edit frame what the viewer sees. But on set, you actually can walk around in the world I’m building. It’s temporarily a real place. I consider the design of a set, the color, the materials, all the elements that it’s built from exactly the way I plan all my other three-dimensional work. The camera is a proxy for the viewer’s eyes on set. Cinematography is like art to me. It’s recording the experience of looking at an artwork. Screen space is for me installation space. And in my actual installations vice versa—exhibition space is media space.
ARTnews – How did you envision the sculpture and photo-based works that would be shown alongside it? How are they related to the film and how should they be viewed on their own?
Kline: Both AdaptationThe other works at LAXART are part of a larger installation called Climate Change. The melting wax sculpture Consumer Fragility Meltdown, was originally shown at 47 Canal in New York, and the photographs being washed away by water in their frames were in the Whitney Biennial—both in 2019. The sculptures aren’t directly connected to the film, but the film and the sculptures were all imagined as part of a larger whole. Projects like Climate ChangeI create an installation in pieces, so that it has the exhibition space and financial support that it needs. All my sculpture and moving image work is intended to be able to stand on its own, but when brought together with the other work that it was conceived with, it becomes another thing entirely—another artwork.
ARTnews: Does the sense of place have any special significance for you, as this is your first institution show in L.A.?
Kline: L.A. and California in general have had a tremendous influence on my work. It was an incredible experience to go there from the East Coast. It’s the truest urban expression of postwar America’s urban ambitions. Also, it’s the origin point of so much of our culture—what we think of as Blue America. It was the birthplace of a lot of our culture, including a lot that originated in California.