WHO WE ARE AND WHERE WE ARE. Sir Steve McQueen CBE is a British film director, film producer, screenwriter, and video artist. Over the last 30 years he has created some of the most innovative works of moving image designed for gallery spaces. He has also directed critically acclaimed feature films, including the Academy Award-winning “12 Years a Slave”, as well as “Hunger”, “Shame”, “Widows”, “Blitz”, and “Occupied City”.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Steve McQueen, is there a difference between the work you do with all these various media?

Not really. It’s a case of doing it, and not thinking about putting things into compartments. It’s one thing. It’s all about the work at the end of the day, and however it comes out. All these things are just there to help the work to be made.

Is there a guiding thread in your works and films?

It’s about being sensitive in the world we’re living in and being able to observe. There’s always some sense of an idea of understanding who we are and where we are, and trying to translate that. I’m more interested in not putting into the fore the things that we want ourselves to be rather than the things we are.

“It’s always good to have some kind of understanding of where you are now and why you’re here now.”

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen
Occupied City, 2023 (still)
4 hours, 22 minutes
© Family Affair Films & Lammas Park.

Steve McQueen, from slavery, to the Grenfell fire near Shepherd’s Bush in London where you were raised, to Amsterdam as an occupied city, to London’s blitz, do you like to denounce terrible things that have happened?

These are all very important subjects within our shared history. As an artist, I’m not just going for things which are so-called tragic. I’m interested things which actually change and help to shape how we got to who we are today. It’s fundamental.

To make young people remember these subjects as a lesson for their lives?  

To some extent, but to have an understanding of where we are is very important. We didn’t just arrive here. These films and artworks in some ways are the ghosts which are moving around us right now, and which are very present. We see the evidence of things not seen. What I’m doing is presenting what happened in order to get to where we are right now.

In your “Occupied City” people see Amsterdam of today. Is the lack of memory that Germans did horrible things there appalling?

I don’t mind that people have a certain kind of amnesia to the past, because how else will we put one foot in front of the other. If we are constantly living in the past, we won’t be thinking about the future and trying to make a better one. But for me, now and then, it’s good to have some kind of a reminder. It’s always good to have some kind of understanding of where you are now and why you’re here now.

And you are a storyteller? 

Yes, I’m undeniably a storyteller. My primary interest is in how you tell stories, how you engage the audience, how you bring them in. It’s like having two people in a bar telling you the same story. One person bores you to tears. The other one has you on the edge of your seat. I would like to be the one that has you on the edge of your seat.

How do you feel about being the first black person to win the Oscar for “12 Years a Slave” and receiving many other  awards in your life?

The Oscar was important because it helps me to make other films. Being the first black person, well, if you start measuring yourself on other people’s idea or understanding of achievements you’re lost. Don’t get me wrong, I was very happy to win, but at the same time as Miles Davis would say: So what?

Your awards are for merit, but what about that sometimes nowadays the black world is not praised because of talent but for other reasons?

It seems we are catching up with the white world then aren’t we? Laughs  Finally, we are getting equality! We’re catching up with the white world mediocrity. Fantastic. If black people are now getting rewards for mediocrity, white people have been doing it for forever and a day.

Does music have importance in your work?

Very much. There are lots of things which get us through pain or suffering. Music lulls us in a way, to our humanity. From religious music to popular music, it’s the oil in the engine. It helps us. It feeds us. It gives us an audio version of hope.

Can you tell me about your exhibition that opens at Dia Beacon in Upstate New York on May 12th?

I can tell you I’m working with an extraordinary musician called Marcus Miller, a prodigy of Miles Davis. He was Miles’s bass player at a very early age, and actually produced Miles’s last two albums. There’s a sonic musical that I’m interested in working on. It’s about the transatlantic crossing. It’s about a world of limbo; and it’s about a world of colour. That’s all I can say, but I’m very excited about it. We are going outside of the frame, so it’s not a film work or a video work, it’s more of an environmental work.

“It’s all about the work at the end of the day, and however it comes out.”

Steve McQueen, is your work more for museums than for private collectors?

Obviously there are collectors of all my work, but you won’t find my work above someone’s couch. That’s the difference.

For you, what is the meaning of art, of creation?

Freedom. Freedom. Freedom, and necessity to hold the mirror up to who we are. Art has always been the measure of our humanity. If you look back into antiquity we’re always going back to see what people were doing then and to measure who we are now is very important. It’s the only thermometer we have to see who we are and where we’ve come as human beings.

There were art movements like Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Pop Art. Nowadays there are no more movements?

No. Things are more fractured now and the art schools are not as good as they were. We’re more dispersed, and cities aren’t necessarily the centre points of movements anymore, but it’s always an evolution to something more exciting and newer that will come out. I don’t want to live in the past, I want to live in the now, and how young people will do things will be very different I’m sure. Futurists were very important when it was happening, abstract expressionists, pop art or whatever. That was then. But now things are moving much faster and it’s a different demographic.

Even if your wife is of great help and an inspiration for some of your work, are you a loner?

She helps me. She executive produced and found the book for “12 Years a Slave”, and the “Occupied City” we worked together. But I’m on my own as far as being an artist is concerned. I don’t see myself as a loner. I feel that it’s a different world now.

Have you been influenced by famous directors like Bergman, Godard, Truffaut, Andy Warhol, Buñuel and people like that?

Rossellini, Fellini, Bergman. It’s like history of art, you cannot not be influenced by things which are around you. It’s impossible, but at the same time, when I’m shooting a scene I’m not thinking of Rossellini or Bergman or whoever. I’m thinking of how do I do this, how I can work now. I’m in the moment, and when you’re in the moment you’re focusing on what’s happening with you. I’m not bringing art history or film history with me. I’m bringing the practicalities of making film. I’m a filmmaker, and I call myself a filmmaker rather than a film director, because what you make is an actual physical practical thing.

You talked about the importance of freedom, but sadly a large part of the world has no freedom at all?

I know I’m privileged. I’m privileged by the fact that I can call myself an artist and I have a certain amount of freedom to do certain things, so therefore I have a responsibility to do the work I do. Sometimes it’s tough, and the work is difficult or challenging, but that’s my responsibility – because if I don’t do that I’m making adverts. I have to push myself in order to do things in a way which is asking questions, and tough questions. Otherwise I’m not doing my job.

You normally use film or video but did still photographic portraits in the case of Nicholas Serota, the former Tate director, suddenly using another medium?

I’ve worked in that way before, but I’ve never done a portrait before. Nick asked me to do a portrait and I didn’t know what to do; but somehow sometimes the subject tells you what the medium needs to be. I’m not a slave to the medium. I’m much more of a follower of the situation, of what does the subject need? When I did “Hunger” – the film about Bobby Sands in Northern Ireland – the subject told me it needed to be a feature film.  I had never made a feature film before, but that’s what it needed to be. I’m more interested in life than in the medium, and then what the subject tells me what it wants. Then I have to facilitate it with the medium and use the best thing to portray whatever it is. For Nick that was photography.

How do you decide to work on a certain subject?

Often seeds are planted a long time ago. This art work I’m doing for Dia which we spoke about, that seed was planted over 20 years ago, but I didn’t know how it was going to develop. I’ve had ideas that have withered and died, but you always plant seeds. The Grenfell thing was fully immediate, because it happened when I was in Chicago making this movie called “Widows”, and I thought, instantaneously, I have got to do something about this. But I didn’t know what it was until a little while. I knew it was always about evidence, so I thought, okay, well, evidence is film, and then I had the idea of flying around the building. But it’s strange.  It takes time.

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen
Sunshine State, 2022
HD video, sound
30 mins 1 sec, continuous projection
Installation view, Sunshine State, Pirelli HangarBicocca,
Milan, Italy, 31 March–31 July 2022
© Steve McQueen. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane
Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery. Photo: Agostino
Osio/Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.
A Commission for International Film Festival Rotterdam

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen
Grenfell, 2019 (still)
colour video, sound
24 minutes, 2 seconds
© Steve McQueen. Courtesy the artist.

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen
Small Axe, (Mangrove), 2019 (still)
2 hours, 7 minutes
© Des Willie/BBC/McQueen Limited.

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen
Sir Nicholas Serota, 2022
fine art giclée print
15.5 x 15.5 cm.
6 x 6 in.
© Steve McQueen. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane
Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery. Photo: Richard Ivey.

“The only reason I do what I do is because I can somehow reflect on who we are or who we want to be.”

Steve McQueen, is Grenfell for you like Guernica for Picasso, a response to something horrible happening?

Yes, I thought I had to. The reason why I thought I had to was because I knew that as soon as that building was covered, people would forget about it. And I didn’t want them to forget about it.

Do you think that because of sensitivity an artist sometimes anticipates what will happen?

I think timing is important. I was shooting “Occupied City” three years ago and it came out in November, obviously a month after the October 7th incident in  Israel. Who knew? I think that if you’re sensitive enough and you’re aware enough things fall in place at the right time. That’s how it is. I don’t know why, but I had the same thing with “12 Years a Slave”, and with “Hunger”, and with “Small Axe” – the five films for the BBC – George Floyd was murdered that same year it was released. People were looking for answers and “Small Axe” provided some solace within what was happening.

Are you a fast or a slow worker?

I work a lot, and recently it’s pouring out of me, and I don’t know why. I don’t question it. I don’t know what fast is. Some people say when I shoot a movie, “Oh, you’re very fast.” Well, I don’t know if I’m fast or not, because I don’t know what other people do.

What is next?

I can’t answer that question because right now I don’t know. I delved into the Second World War with “Occupied City” and “Blitz” is going to be released hopefully at the end of the year, because this is the foundation of where we are now. This is the modern world going into the contemporary world that was shaped by that particular war. My presence here in the UK was shaped by the Second World War, so it’s interesting to reflect back on that and to  make our way back to now and to see if we’ve progressed and where we’re going. Fascism is becoming very popular. Obviously in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, in the Netherlands as well, far right-wing Geert Wilders won the majority of votes,  and with Trump and what’s happening in Russia, it’s so much like with “Occupied City”.

Can we learn from the past?

Possibly not, but the only thing we’ve got to learn from is the past, and it seems we’ve got very short memories. The thing about fascism or the right, what they’re very good at is winning elections, but what they’re not very good at is actually running governments, because at the end of the day people want a sense of fairness and a sense of togetherness. People want things where people are happy, that people are respected for who they are and not vilified for who they are.

Are you afraid that all our progress will be erased by what’s going on?

Yes. I think once people get comfortable, there’s a situation where they don’t want to share or to help other people. There’s lot of problems going on where the fundaments of the world have not been shaped correctly. I feel that we have to go back to a moment where we’re thinking there’s a bigger picture here. If you are just focusing on you, you’re  taking your eye off of what’s going on outside of your boundaries, and what’s going on outside your boundaries will inevitably have an effect on you. I’m just hoping that there’s this understanding that we have to  get into a situation where we are working together to solve problems together, not individually, because that’s when wars happen and things get a bit silly.

Are you an optimist?

Totally. I hope you are. We have to be. I’m an artist. I have to be, because there’s nothing else. That’s why I put on the record player and music.

What does it really mean to be an artist? 

The only reason I do what I do is because I can somehow reflect on who we are or who we want to be. And it’s very important to have a reminder of who we are and how we could be and learn from the past, but also to have an experience of love and how important that is. I know it sounds very hippy or very corny, but it’s important to be reminded of that. Sometimes, to that point, it’s not so easy. If you think of the films I’ve made, I’ve not made it easy for myself but somehow there’s a redemption.

How do you feel about the new world of technology, the fact that you have to say this book has been written by me and not by artificial intelligence, or that they don’t show paintings because they are not politically correct? Children are confronted by that, it’s their world. How do you educate them?

You’ve come to the precipice of where we are right now. I just hold on to humanity. I would just say hold on to your books is one thing. Isn’t it strange how analogue is so important now, how the physical is so important. I think that’s the answer. The physical, the book, the painting, the artwork, whatever it is. The actual reality, the actual experience of going to a location and experiencing things is going to be so much more important now than ever. People are not going to trust the virtual, they’re going to want to be in the actuality. That might be a good turning point. It might be where people go back to a certain way of living where it’s much more communal, much more tactile. It can be a very interesting time. We’ll see what happens.

You may go back to painting landscapes? 

Yes. Laughs I might have to. That was how I started. I started painting. It was like an evolution and then I got to the camera. But if Michelangelo was around today he would not be painting, he’d be doing something completely within the highest technological form there is. It’s about how you translate using the eye or using whatever technology to do something of real interest. Again, I don’t know if people will trust it. I don’t know what the narrative of the world is going to be in 5, 10, 20 years’ time. I don’t know, but I have hope. That’s all I have. I have hope.

If our generation’s reference point is the Second World War, what is the reference for the new generations?

Covid is a big thing. Covid was strange. We’re not going to recover from that for the next ten years. This word trauma has been thrown around like confetti, but that will have a deep effect on generations of children who were born in Covid, on teenagers who lived through it. When has there ever been a time in the world where we stopped? It tells you what could happen, and I hope that is a reminder for young people, that if you do not have your hands on the steering wheel, how  bad things could go. Covid was huge and I think that’s their reference point.

Thank you very much for being with me.

Portrait of Steve McQueen: ©Photo James Stopforth/Thomas Dane Gallery