wolfgang tillmans on working with frank ocean and returning to music
Following a weekend of surprise releases and explanations, the celebrated visual artist and beloved i-D contributor talks Frank-ly about working with Ocean, the sounds and politics behind his 'Device Control' EP, and his upcoming exhibition plans.
Frank Ocean by Wolfgang Tillmans, 2016, courtesy Maureen Paley, London
From the moment the boysdontcry.co stream set the internet ablaze with the first flickers of Endless, the creative worlds of Frank Ocean and Wolfgang Tillmans have orbited one another. Unbeknown to the celebrated German photographer, beloved i-D contributor, and musical artist, Ocean had shared his previously unreleased track, "Device Control," with the world. "Enormously proud and happy that Frank Ocean included my (yet unreleased) track 'Device Control' as intro and as a full length ending of his Endless album," he shared on Instagram. "We were in touch about the intro, but I wouldn't believe it until it happened." Over the weekend, Tillmans's eyes and ears believed. As Ocean shared another album and accompanying zine, the two artists edged ever closer. "Second day of Ocean news stream... Frank just released the long awaited follow up to Channel Orange with my cover photograph from the Fantastic Man sitting 2015," he added. From this surprise role in Endless and realizing Frank had shared "Device Control" in its entirety, to the decision to release the EP and seeing his portrait of Frank on the cover of Blond, the last few days have been a blur of shares, releases, confessions, and explanations.
While riding the Ocean waves, Tillmans has unleashed his own musical tide, bringing forward the release of his Device Control EP and revealing the fruits of yet another collaboration with an elusive artist, by sharing the visuals for Salem's remix of "Make It Up As You Go Along." What a week. What a year. In between tirelessly crusading against Brexit, mounting a solo show at London's Maureen Paley Gallery, and preparing for two major exhibitions next year, Tillmans found the time to release an EP of music that he first began tinkering with at the time he was documenting the European club scene for i-D in the late 80s. Quickly following up on 2016/1986 EP, Device Control EP sees him confidently step into the spotlight as a fully fledged musical artist. To make sense of the last few days, we caught up with him to talk Frank-ly about those collaborations, both surprise and planned, partying in Berlin and beyond, what attracted him to music making after a twenty six year hiatus, and what the future holds.
Where are you at the moment?
I spent the last three months living and working on Fire Island, a thin strip of sand, 32 miles long, off the coast of Long Island.
What can you tell us about the last 48 hours? How hectic/thrilling has it been?
You describe it correctly. The "last 48 hours… hectic — thrilling." Even though in the last four weeks I had some idea of what was going on, I didn't really have any reliable idea of the timing and extent of my involvement in this release weekend extravaganza.
In a recent Pitchfork interview, you said, "We immediately got on, and I felt he was a unique artist, and that all the backs and forths were somehow OK. He seemed so well-considered and sharp, yet open to what would happen on the day." Did you think that initial difficult shoot for Fantastic Man could have spawned such a creative coming together?
I must say for all the difficulty before and after the shoot, whenever we actually met I realized that he knew exactly who he came to. He was well researched on my work in a way that few sitters ever are. So I actually did feel Frank is genuinely interested in other artists. Usually not working in this high-octane world of mega-stardom, I just took the antics as coming with it, with a pinch of salt, but at the heart of it I felt that this was a person at the height of his powers and when you're in that position you want to connect to others in that position.
"The best thing about a good club is that you are 'together alone.' You can be as much together as you want and as much alone as you want. In the end everyone gravitates to be an atom in this atomized togetherness."
What can you tell us about taking Frank clubbing in Berlin?
I just don't get nervous around people like him, especially as he is actually calm in person. So when he said he would be coming back to Berlin that night I just thought, "Well, let's see if he really does." Then I got a picture of him and a friend on a plane. So I realized he really is coming. The best thing about a good club is that you are "together alone." You can be as much together as you want and as much alone as you want. In the end everyone gravitates to be an atom in this atomized togetherness.
Had there been much contact since this meeting?
Well, then there was this mysterious and rather annoying refusal to release the pictures for Fantastic Man. I still don't know what it was. But it all came with high-powered management notes and lawyers letters. It was quite upsetting. Then we had the occasional SMS contact and things went back to normal. Maybe he just didn't feel ready to have a major magazine article out at that time, but he could have told us beforehand! Fantastic Man is a labor of love and not some corporate entity to fuck around with.
I remember seeing exhibition images surface online that showed a few of the shots that were intended for the issue. Frank's green hair caused more than a ripple of intrigue. What can you tell us about the shoot itself, and the image Frank selected for the cover?
One time he canceled the shoot because the hair colorist wasn't able to do her job in time. Even though it seemed rather extravagant to say the least, the final result is so good that I think it was worth it. In my own work I think a long time about the fold and curvature in a piece of paper, so in a way I can relate to this. It was a certain dedication to the project to then drive 12 hours through the night from London to meet in Berlin. My studio is not a photo studio in traditional terms. I only photograph someone there once or twice a year. It's usually a space where I work on my ideas, prints, and installations of prints. So when I actually do a shoot there I take it as an opportunity to "dress it," which is fun. At the end of the sitting we did some final pictures in the shower and, as it was January and a sunny day, the light coming through the window was super warm. That's when the album cover image happened.
Despite being frustrated that the shots never made it the issue, how does it feel seeing it grace the cover of this year's hotly anticipated album?
I'm totally new to the art of the digital release and all this is fascinating, how the design was still in question hours before the actual release happened. My song making up seven minutes of the Endless album is definitely the more unusual thing to happen, but I love the cover of Blond. I never had an AA+ record cover. But all the craziness of the last days kept me from working on the layout of my catalog for my Tate Modern exhibition coming up soon. So this will have to stop soon.
Have you listened to Blond yet? What do you think? Which tracks are particular favorites of yours?
I'm often a late adopter. When everyone is talking about it I am rarely listening. For example, I didn't listen to Anohni's new album, Hopelessness, when it first came out but now I love it so much. "Nikes" and its video are incredible. It is so abstract, even so wrong, it's great.
Tell us about how you shared your music with Frank. Had you discussed your musical past previously? Why did you specifically share two spoken word songs, "Angered Son" and "Naive Me," alongside "Device Control"?
I wanted to give him an overview of what I was up to musically. The pop song "Warm Star" I still feel the most ambiguous about because it is so catchy, but I wanted to send it anyway. "Angered Son," which is on the now out Device Control EP, is a vocal piece sung in the round style about the Orlando killer. "Naive Me" was written the day after Brexit happened. A line in it goes: "25 years ago, I couldn't have thought this would happen." "Device Control" is the most accomplished track I've done, so I wanted him to hear that for sure.
Let's talk more about your decision to return to making music after a 29-year break. Was there a particular catalyst?
It was at a dinner party for Isa Genzken's birthday in Berlin where my friend Chris Lowe and I spoke about music and new programs and apps. He said, "You really love music, always have, you should get yourself a keyboard and computer program and try it out." I took his word and "Make It Up As You Go Along" is the result of it.
Since your early work for i-D, music has been a constant in your creative world, from DJing to including samples in your exhibitions. But up until very recently, it was always in the background. Now that you're releasing your EP, how would you say your relationship with music has changed?
It's a process of building confidence. The big test will be this Saturday, when I play with my band Fragile for the first time in public. It'll be in the late afternoon at the BOFFO Fire Island Performance Festival. There is an amazing line up, including the likes of Eartheater, Ssion, M. Lamar, The Blow, Casey Spooner, and Xavier Cha. So if Fragile's debut can stand amongst those artists, then I feel I passed a hurdle. On a record I passed the Frank Ocean test, but singing live is a different story.
How did Fragile come to be?
I came up with the name 33 years ago, so it's been a while in the making. One evening last year while installing my exhibition PCR at David Zwirner in New York, my friend and assistant on touring exhibitions — Colombian artist Juan Pablo Echeverri — and myself had drinks with the gallery team. It emerged that several [of the team members] made music. And so we went to Jay Pluck's rehearsal space in Williamsburg that night with Jay and Kyle Combs on keyboards, Juan Pablo on guitar, with myself and Alison Midgley on the mics. This was the first time in 25 years that I was singing into a mic, and it felt so good to do something together where everyone is an equal part of a jam — so different from the solo experience of a visual artist. On another exhibition in Porto earlier this year, Juan Pablo and I found musicians who we played with every night. It was insane: all day we installed a large-scale exhibition at the Serralves Museum and all night we made music. So this summer we reconvened with Jay Pluck, Kyle Combs, Tom Roach, and Daniel Pearce to work properly on this. Several new songs emerged, some of them incorporating lyrics and melodies of mine from 1985/ 86, when I last made music as a 17-year-old.
How has the clubbing experience changed since you first started documenting it? What have been the biggest changes and shifts you've witnessed and danced in?
I don't believe in always glorifying the past. There is the magic of the first time, and that is as genuine and original for a person experiencing it today as it was for someone having a first nightlife epiphany in a legendary place 25 years ago. But all in all I would say that the commercialization of city centers in many countries has led to good, wild clubbing being edged out and everything being a bit sanitized. I miss that going out, we don't go to the West End anymore. Now even Shoreditch has been cleaned up. The mayor should be lobbied to understand that nightlife is part of cultural life. And that nightlife attracts good, interesting people, and that it only causes problems when there are too many prohibitions in place.
"Some of the activities we indulge in will be illegal somewhere. Smoking pot, being half naked in public, a woman kissing a woman, drinking at the ages of 18-21, the list could go on. I feel we need to be aware how all the freedoms we enjoy today have been fought for by previous generations. And that it's our duty to defend them against conservative and reactionary forces all around us."
Device Control comments on our obsession with documenting everything on social media; "Angered Son" is about the Orlando killer. What would you like to say about the politics of the EP?
Daniel Wang & J.E.E.P. who have done two amazing remixes of "Make It Up" for the EP felt moved by the vocal on the experimental track "Triangle / Gong / What" on my 2016/1986 EP debut. The line goes, "What we do here is a crime in most countries, but it's not, there is no victim. Leave us alone." They sampled it and moved it into their remixes. This text references not Orlando, but really all the freedoms of expression we enjoy on a good night in a free-wheeling club. Some of the activities we indulge in will be illegal somewhere. Smoking pot, being half naked in public, a woman kissing a woman, drinking at the ages of 18-21, the list could go on. I feel we need to be aware how all the freedoms we enjoy today have been fought for by previous generations. And that it's our duty to defend them against conservative and reactionary forces all around us.
Let's talk about the decision to release the Device Control EP early. After realizing Frank had used "Device Control" in full, was it an easy decision to share the work on your own terms?
Yes. I own the song and he knew I wanted to release it in September, so he just prompted me to do it a bit earlier by releasing it himself last weekend. I feel very honored, and it sits great on Endless.
Beyond Frank, the EP itself shares the fruits of one or two collaborations. How did you come to collaborate with Salem and work on the remix of the first track you shared, "Make It Up As You Go Along?"
Jack Donoghue and I were meant to meet six years ago for Yassa Khan's Juke Magazine, but in the end it never happened to get us in the same place. Then we kept in very infrequent touch, because I liked their stuff and likewise. A couple of years ago I made a music exhibition project dedicated to studio music, called Playback Room. I featured their King Night in it. It sounds so incredible on high-end speakers. We finally met this year in May when I visited them in Montague, Louisiana where they were living and working on a new album. A lot of great photographs happened there, which will see the light of day once their album comes out. The remix was an idea on the side, but as it happens it turned out so good. I'm proud they trusted me to release it now, as it is their first release in years.
Where, if anywhere specific, should the EP be played? Where would you like to take the listener?
The Daniel Wang & J.E.E.P. mixes are insanely groovy, so I think they should be danced to. That would make me happy to coincidentally hear them played in a club. But also "Angered Son" doesn't need to be a listening only piece, to have that played for a minute on a dancefloor could be powerful.
Beyond this whirlwind what are you working on? What details can you share about your Tate Modern exhibition 2017?
My main and foremost activity is of course the visual work, and next year sees a double of two separate major shows at two of the most prestigious museums, Tate Modern in February and Fondation Beyeler in Basel in May. I shouldn't really be doing anything else but work on these, but on the other hand, it was good for the brain to move in different directions. And I have to follow my calling. I didn't plan to get active about Brexit, it just dawned on me in January that if no one does anything about it, it will go wrong. There was a sense of urgency that I couldn't resist. The music inspires other parts and satisfies something that will allow me to bring the exhibitions to the next level, I hope. Chris Dercon, the Tate exhibition's curator, speaks of my 'extended practice' as the reason and focus for this exhibition. It will look at the varying venues and forms that became part of my work in the last fifteen years.
Now that the EP has been released, what role will music play in your future? What excites you most about tomorrow?
We will go into a studio in New York in September to record the songs that we worked on as Fragile this summer. That should be really exciting. With those recording in my luggage I will return to Berlin and work with Tim Knapp, who is also behind the programming of Device Control, at working on the material. This summer was a break from campaigning. In the fall I want to consider how to take the formats which I developed for the anti-Brexit campaign into a larger European context, and in particular put them to use against right wing populism which is rife in most European countries and beyond.
The Device Control EP is out now. The vinyl release is scheduled for September 16th.
Text Steve Salter