House of Air director duo Brian and Karl talk Sex, Semiotics and Art in Pop Music Videos
Their debut short Skwerl was a breakout success, clocking up 25 million views on YouTube, and their work has been featured everywhere from BBC's QI, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Gawker, Vulture, Slate, Instinct, Attitude and Digg to Business Insider.
Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston, the London-based filmmaking duo who directed the iconic, YouTube-banned NSFW music video for Brendan Macleans’s House of Air, have a remarkable ability to capture the imagination of the internet. CKM spoke to Brian and Karl to learn more about the artistic processes behind their work, the politics of happy gay sex on screen, and how it feels to go viral.
CKM: The first time CKM saw the music video you directed for Brendan Maclean’s House of Air, we knew it would go viral. Were you aware during production that you were onto something big, or if not, what was the moment you realised?
B: Brendan's got a great online following so we knew it'd get a decent amount of views and that it was very shareable. We didn't expect the scale of it though - a million hits across platforms in about 2 weeks, which is pretty great for a completely independent release.
K: To be honest we didn’t think too much about whether this video would go viral or not, but we did know that it was going to be a video that wasn’t going to get a middling response, that it really would be all or nothing. I think we always approach our films with a certain kind of naivety, as though we are only making the video to satisfy ourselves and our own intellectual curiosity. I don’t think you can set out to make viral content, unless you’re making it to a certain formula.
CKM: This isn’t the first time one of your videos has been big news. Your short film SKWERL - how English sounds to non-English speakers - was a breakout hit with over 23 million views. What is it about your creative process that allows you to access the cultural zeitgeist and hit on ideas that really resonate?
B: I think in each case we've just explored something in a new way and people have found it intriguing. Fake English and Polari have been done before, but never fully dramatised. With House of Air I think it's the aestheticised pop repackaging of gay sex that has caught people off-guard, rather than the idea of unsimulated sex acts on camera being anything new.
K: The video came together in the wake of the referendum on Brexit - Brian and I are both here under EU regulations so the referendum result and what started to happen afterwards didn’t sit well with us. We were actually grading the video the day Trump was inaugurated and I remember thinking ‘this is the man who’s going to get the nuclear codes’ and I realised that what we had could be kind of explosive in its own way, even as a gesture of defiance. As it was the video wasn’t so much released as it was detonated. So the video very quickly got interpreted in the light of the zeitgeist and I had no problem with it being read as a ‘fuck you’ to the juggernaut of Trump and Brexit values. To be honest I see the commentary around the video as much a part of the video as the images themselves are.
CKM: CKM were drawn to the aesthetic of the House of Air music video: contrasting sexually explicit content with immaculate art direction and a hugely funny show-and-tell take on gay culture. Was it hard to strike that balance within the video, and how did you go about it?
B: Just by approaching the video as we would any other film project really - making sure we had a great stylist, DP, and a clear vision. The cast are all experienced performers and naturally great on camera - they understood the tone and humour we were going for and absolutely nailed it. I think for us the key was not overthinking the sex and approaching it with the same matter-of-fact POV that we were trying to capture.
K: Well the humour obviously derives from the photos. The brilliant thing about Gay Semiotics is that it treads this line between utter seriousness and knowing humour. It’s deadpan. But our video isn’t just a recreation of Hal’s work, it’s an appropriation. So whatever irony there is in Hal’s photos you have to add the irony we’re bringing to the material too. It’s kind of an anthropology of an anthropology and a lot of people have failed to see that. The humour in the video is key. It’s the humour which makes the sex so disarming because it’s not presented with an air of eroticism or an aesthetic that’s designed to shock. What you’ve got is this very objective depiction of sex with all the guys smiling, looking right down the barrel of the camera and people just don’t know how to respond to that. Ironically I think people are more comfortable seeing sex coupled with violence and surely that’s more problematic than seeing a representation of sex that’s consensual and celebratory, even if it’s not to everyone’s taste.
CKM: What are your artistic influences?
B: Lynch, de Palma, John Cameron Mitchell, John Waters, Fosse. I'm a big fan of musicals, a lot of our stuff has that theatricality.
K: Brian is very film and theatre, I’m more literature and art so if you look at this video and other films we’ve done you’ll see all sorts of influences in our work. I think the video channels the spirit of certain writers and filmmakers rather than any particular aesthetic - people like John Waters and D.H. Lawrence and Nabokov and others who pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable to represent in art. It wasn’t until a few weeks after release that I realised the poo shot is pure Manet - Manet’s Olympia with scat. Brendan might be wearing a collar and Olympia might be wearing a ribbon around her neck but it’s the same unflinching gaze.
CKM: From Robert Mapplethorpe to Tom of Finland, Queer artists and creatives have a solid history of breaking boundaries and setting the precedent for new forms of creative expression. Why do you think that is?
B: Out of necessity perhaps? We've been 'other' for so long, I guess it's inevitable that our creative expression is going to reflect that.
K: I think it’s a natural extension of queer creativity and resilience. We’re all born with our own particular sexual orientation, but unless you’re straight, no-one really tells you how to be in the world. You kind of have to create yourself, your identity. There’s a constant process of becoming and breaking out of bounds, a constant destruction and renewal. I guess that filters through into the kind of art we make.
CKM: In a recent interview in The Guardian, Brendan Maclean mentions your phone-call informing him ‘the pornstars are booked’! How did you come to the decision to use real sex in the video?
B: We wanted to explore a clash between coded and explicit representations of gay sex. The hankies are a way of covertly signifying desire, so we thought it would be interesting to do a 180 and connect the codes with the act in a very literal and exposed way. We're big Rupaul's Drag Race fans and had just seen Alaska's Mae West impersonation where every line was unapologetic filth delivered as innuendo - we figured it'd be funny to take that approach to this and show explicit unsimulated sex in a really nonchalant way. Obviously it's all very tongue-in-cheek, but it was important for us for this to be a celebration of sexual freedom so there was never really any doubt that it all had to be real.
K: When Brendan approached us with the material it was obvious we couldn’t just do a recreation. We knew we wanted the video to be explicit and to be honest it didn’t seem like such a big leap to make because in my late teens I’d seen all those films like Catherine Breillat’s Romance and 9 Songs and when you go back to films like Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses you realise that real sex has been depicted on screen for a long time, even if what’s new here is the fact it’s being put in a pop music video. The piss and shit has really ruffled people’s feathers but there’s a lineage here that starts with Duchamp and goes right through to Delvoye’s Cloaca Machine. Artists have been shitting in tins and making poo machines for a while now so I guess what I mean is this: does YouTube just have to be this vapid space where all we watch is cat videos and Donald Trump skits, or can music videos compete with the art gallery and the cinema? The thing is, we live in a world of simulacra anyway. To me, what’s more important than the ‘actual sex’ is the directness of the representation. That’s where the real audacity is.
CKM: What initially drew you to the project?
B: We've known Brendan for years - our first video for him, Stupid, went pretty well and was up until now our most successful promo in terms of view count. Lately there's been a rise in queer content in mainstream music videos - often cluelessly directed by straight directors for straight artists - so we'd been keen to make a bit of a gay statement for a while. The timing was great.
K: This was an independent project and I think that’s what attracted us most - the freedom of it. Brendan's always really open to creating something outside the box.
CKM: How collaborative was the process of creating the video?
B: Brendan's very trusting and gives lots of creative freedom, so after the initial chat we were mostly just left to develop and get it together ourselves. We had some incredible people work on this, they all brought a lot to the table. It was just a case of giving people the space to do their thing really.
K: We’ve worked with Brendan a few times before, so after our initial meeting where we discussed the photo references we had the creative freedom to go away and very much make this video our own. We assembled a really great set of people on this - given the kind of shoot it was and challenges we faced it felt less like a team and more like a community. Everyone was very supportive of each other.
CKM: What surprised you most about the reception the video received?
B: The alt-right backlash. We all exist in a liberal echo-chamber so I don't think we quite expected it to have that reach. There's often a sense of just preaching to the choir with these things, so it was strangely satisfying to know our work had reached people who found it genuinely confronting. And that we'd made a bunch of racist homophobes sit through 4 minutes of hardcore gay sex.
K: I was definitely surprised by the extremity of the negative reactions, but what I found most overwhelming was the outpouring of support. We've had emails from all sorts of people thanking us for making the video. It was cool to see some of the queens from Drag Race tweeting about the video too. More broadly it was just awesome to see people feeling lifted up and a little less fearful about everything that’s happening.
CKM: The poet WB Yeats said ‘the symbol is the only thing free enough from all bonds to speak of perfection’. A few of your projects have linguistic themes. In SKWERL, the sounds of speech are detached from meaning, and your film Putting on the Dish and House of Air reference Polari, a language historically created by the gay community as a kind of code to avoid prejudice. Both could be seen to explore the symbolic potential of language. What role does language and symbolism play in your work?
K: We’re definitely interested in modes of communication, and in a way House of Air was kind of a response to our Polari film, Putting on the Dish. That film was a drama entirely in this gay cryptolect that was only used in Britain until the 1960's and we made a conscious decision with that film not to subtitle it. The experience a viewer has of that film then is one of pure code - what you get from the story is what you can glean from body language and intonation, it functions entirely on the implicit, so House of Air is the antithesis of that. I think though why we wanted to blast those codes open in House of Air was because of this desire in certain parts of the gay community to make us these symbols of respectability. People, it seems, are happy to tolerate the gay community so long as certain parts of our experience remain coded.
CKM: Your profile in The Monthly mentions how dropping your SKWERL video lead to loads of local independent artists approaching you for music videos. Rising out of the Sydney scene, you’ve worked with many notable musicians including The Staves and Marika Hackman and you’ve now made the move to London. What inspires you most about the scene in London?
B: Ironically most of our recent output has been for Sydney artists. We're fairly disillusioned with the music video industry here - no budgets, exploitative pitching process, it can be a huge waste of creative energy and directors barely get paid, if at all. The best thing about being in London has been finding incredible collaborators - DPs, art directors, actors, etc. We could never have made House of Air in Sydney.
CKM: What’s next for Brian and Karl?
K: We’re working on a short that’s a bit of a portrait of London as well as a kind of retelling of some of our experiences here through a bit of a literary and mythological framework. We need to work out how to get it funded, but at this stage we’re just busy trying to get it written.