Published  05/03/2016

Sergio Caballero: ‘I’m interested in the creative process. I couldn’t care less about the final work’

Sergio Caballero: ‘I’m interested in the creative process. I couldn’t care less about the final work’

The Spanish artist, composer, film-maker and director of Barcelona’s Sónar Festival talks about his quirky interest in taxidermy and the paranormal, his unorthodox film-making process, and why he’s averse to popular culture


He shuns the internet, doesn’t read books, watch TV or go to the movies, except with his kids. News, however, he follows religiously, devouring as many as three newspapers on any given Sunday. He avoids art galleries, although he does, sometimes, walk through museums with a friend instead of strolling in the park. He rarely goes to the ballet and then it is because he has to – one small part of what he does is to compose the music. It has been 10 years since Sergio Caballero (b1966) decided to protect himself from consuming culture. “It’s good to have a sort of creative autism in order to be able to come up with something genuinely new, and that is what I try to do,” he explains. “To me, it’s important to work with my own imagination.”

Untamed and largely uncorrupted by contemporary culture in the digital age, Caballero’s imagination runs wild. He is an artist of many faces: music composition aside, he has used painting and collage, built installations and performances, and is now immersed in making films and advertising campaigns, using a distinctive and fiercely conceptual approach. Regardless of the format, his work is marked by irreverence and a piercing quality that shocks, perplexes and provokes. It tiptoes on the edge of the socially acceptable. His film-making process is at once nihilistic and intuitive, and the result – raw and visceral – is filled with dark humour, silence and space for reflection.

Caballero’s latest, Ancha es Castilla/N’Importe Quoi (mixed media animation, 2014), is a grotesque and unapologetic parody, inspired in part by the 1973 cult classic The Exorcist. Available for online streaming, it was also recently on view at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC. The museum’s press release describes it as “the darkly comic tale of a child’s exorcism, blending homespun puppet animation and live action” and using an aesthetic that is “deliberately low budget and slapdash”. This is a look Caballero often resorts to, seeing the defects as effects.

“Instead of the typical animation, done frame by frame, which I don’t like because of how slow and heavy the process is, I wanted to do something flexible and fast,” he says. The 25-minute short was filmed in his house with a small crew and took just three months to make from start to finish. The puppets represent an awkward concoction of food pieces and hair strands, rubber and foam, scraps of fabric, plastic and cardboard. The voices of all but one of the characters are his, and were recorded on his iPhone. There was no script – a definitive trademark of Caballero’s films. The narrative doesn’t matter, he says. “What’s most important is the world I create.”

These worlds are bizarre, to say the least. Nested in beautiful scenery lie surreal themes that focus on the paranormal: spirit exorcism (Ancha es Castilla), ghosts (Finisterrae), dwarves with telepathic and telekinetic abilities (La Distancia), mind-altering sounds and substances (the idea he has in mind for his next film). 

Finisterrae (2010), Caballero’s award-winning debut feature film, is at once poetic and absurd. It follows two ghosts as they seek to return to the world of the living. In the era of flawless special effects and 3D animation, Caballero stays true to his unpolished style and countercultural impulse and presents us instead with a vision of the ghosts as simple as child’s play: two men covered in plain white sheets with holes cut out for their eyes (it was, actually, his daughter’s idea). On their journey, they wander through enchanted forests and breathtaking valleys, sit by a river, interact with nature, and perform a number of rituals involving music or fire or a combination of both. They finally reach Finisterrae – a fantastically sounding spin on Cape Finisterre in Galicia – where one of them goes through the portal of life and turns into a frog. Moments later, kissed by a prince, the frog turns into a princess. Strangely, the film ends with a sequence of interiors. Why Caballero chooses to take us indoors after spending more than an hour roaming through the great outdoors is baffling. The mansion’s majestic rooms and hallways are empty. As the camera glides through, we try to look for clues as to why we are here, until a reindeer – presumably the reincarnation of the second ghost – walks through the space, gracefully taking control of it, then turns around and walks out of the frame.

“What I always do is to first create a series of situations with the characters and once everything is shot, I go into the editing room, where I develop the film and create the narrative,” says Caballero. “I have to discover what really belongs to the material,” he explains in an interview with Senses of Cinema. “It’s like when I cook. You literally have to lose your senses and bring together different elements in a spontaneous manner, constantly testing it for taste so as to find out the perfect blend.”

He often draws this parallel between cooking and film-making. “It’s the same,” he asserts. “You have a series of elements and you have to work with them.” Flexibility, along with the ability to improvise and follow your intuition are key. “You come to the market with the idea of making escarcha de bacalao, but you get there and the bacalao is crappy, but there’s this other fish that’s good, and you say, you know what, I’ll make a ceviche.” What’s important, Caballero points out, is starting out with good-quality raw material and touching it as little as possible in the process.

To illustrate how well this strategy works when it comes to films, Caballero recounts this story from the making of Finisterrae. Arriving at a particular location, Caballero finds the place is completely covered in snow. It is impossible to shoot whatever he had envisioned. He doesn’t turn back, however, and is soon rewarded. A tribe of wild reindeer, starved because of the severe winter, approaches the cast and crew as they go about filming. “To get a reindeer to eat from your hand …” he recalls with awe, but unable to finish the sentence, continues: “If I had written ‘The deer eats from my hand,’ it just doesn’t happen like that. Instead, you get to this place, the snow is brutal, you see the reindeer, some of them albinos, all white; it’s magic!”

The scene is particularly touching and becomes pivotal to the story. “Someone else would have probably despaired, but to me it was all good because what would happen every time is that the film became better because of all the [unforeseen] elements.” Besides, he adds: “When I’m in difficult situations, it’s when I’m most comfortable.”

Flowing with the magic of the moment, Caballero creates a particular ambience on his sets. He speaks of “channelling the energy” of the crew, the characters and the spectacular locations he chooses for his films. He doesn’t work with actors, opting instead to cast his friends, family and colleagues, or people he randomly meets. He sees beauty and grace in their amateur ways and silly mistakes.

“The idea of how you have to do things doesn’t go well with me; that if you want to make a movie it has to be about something, you have to write a script … All this really ties me down. It curtails creativity. Instead, if you can play with the elements, it’s perfect. It’s intuition. And it’s also my way of being. It’s what moves me, what I really enjoy about my work and I think it shows, no? I have this arty side, but also a fun edge.” He laughs. He cherishes the freedom that comes from “removing all the academism,” as he puts it.

“Besides,” he says, “what I’m most interested in is the creative process. I couldn’t care less about the final work. I like producing and creating. I try to create no matter what I do, whether it’s french fries or films. It’s about being aware and enjoying what you’re doing. Then the result and how that works out often doesn’t depend on you. You can make a piece that’s really good, but if the person who can make it be seen doesn’t see it, it doesn’t go well for you. Or the opposite, you can make a mediocre piece, but be lucky that [the right] person sees it and puts it out there and it works out well.”

Caballero’s films begin as collections of random notes: ideas, sentences, situations, observations. “I come from music, so when I set out to make a new piece I always start with a palette of sounds from which I create the composition,” he explains. “When it comes to film-making I do the same. I have a set of ideas out of which I create the situational magic that I work with.” In the case of Finisterrae, one of the prime elements is the music, created months before filming the scenes. In the editing room, it became the connective tissue with which the story was built.

“What makes you an artist,” he ponders, then continues without hesitation: “It’s a certain way of understanding the day-to-day,” of being attentive and noticing things that are different. “I walk down the street, my chip is always working,” he says, then pauses to scroll through his phone. “I have notes here, for example, a billboard in Mallorca saying ‘the distance’.” That’s where the name of his second feature film originates.

La Distancia (2012), as described on the film’s website, “combines suspense with science fiction, using touches of surrealist humour to [create] an intriguing and subversive” cinematic experience. In it, three dwarves with special powers have six days to steal “the distance” – an art piece locked up, along with its creator and a coyote, in an abandoned Soviet factory. “I love dwarves,” Caballero professed in a 2013 interview with PlayGround Magazine. “There is a certain magical, fantastic element to them.” A self-proclaimed fan of David Lynch, he confesses to borrowing the idea from him, but takes it to a whole other level.

Caballero’s dwarves have peculiar gifts. Apart from the obvious telekinetic and telepathic abilities (that’s one way of getting around not having a script), one dwarf can tune his ears to hear at great distances, another has a freakish way of obtaining information by scratching his balls and wiggling his fingers in front of his nose – a ritual that produces the appearance of a sexy, clairvoyant croupier. Then there is the factory guard who goes in and out of dimensions as a result of some secret Soviet experiment. He also enjoys wearing red stilettos while masturbating and has a special affinity for Pluto. To add a touch of romance, Caballero throws in a love story between a Japanese fire bucket and a chimney.

The carefully chosen locations are key pieces of Caballero’s cinematic puzzles. La Distancia is set in the Siberian taiga, a region he feels has a distinctive magic. Although filmed in Spain, the site of the abandoned factory “is an indisputable protagonist of the film, a lead character,” as he puts it, with a powerful “presence of spirit”. With its “decadent edge” and “atemporal, timeless nature,” it plays a pivotal role in setting the tone and feel of the story.

Another interesting aspect of the film is the soundscape: the recurring wailing of a siren, the tape of a woman screaming, the recording of a Lenin speech, some low-frequency humming and lots and lots of silence. “Silence is important and the proper sound that the story generates is important,” affirms Caballero. “There is only one piece of music in La Distancia and it comes in at the very end of the film.

“In the case of Ancha es Castilla, it’s the opposite,” he points out. “The whole time, there’s music, but that’s part of the trip. It’s some of classical music’s greatest accomplishments, but badly played, with the pitch too low. I was aiming for that.” For his next film, he wants to take music a step further by turning it into the protagonist of the story. The idea, he explains, is “to use 3D sound technology as a new source of creativity rather than a boring mirror of reality”. In general, though, he is adamantly opposed to the way music is used in film. “It’s horrible. You’re in the middle of a movie and a violin appears … I don’t understand why it’s there. It’s unnecessary. If you take out the soundtrack, the film would gain so much.”

Caballero’s influences come from a different time, a different kind of cinema. In the 1980s in Barcelona, twentysomething year old Sergio frequented then-popular art film house Casablanca. It was the place to go to meet people – “People were hooking up more in these places than in discotheques,” he laughs – and see potent art films. It is where Caballero discovered the worldsof Philippe Garrel and Andrei Tarkovsky. In Spanish, they call this type of cinema cine de autor, a term that highlights the importance of the creator’s vision. From there come the long takes, the slow, reflective paces, the vast spaces and silences, even the metaphysical themes. The enchantment with Russian can also be traced back to this time.

“We devoured quite a lot of Russian films of that period, which really impressed me a lot with their tempo, with their beat, with their space. They’re like my fathers,” he admits, “so when I embark upon making cinema, I do it with these references in mind, but from my own way of being. That’s the kind of cinema I’m after. I don’t see myself doing shot and reverse shot, nor moving the camera, or illuminating, or anything of that sort.” In Finisterrae, Caballero explicitly alludes to The Inner Scar. Not only is his ghost mounted on a white horse inside a circle of fire – an image directly borrowed from Garrel’s 1972 film – but the song in this scene, Nico’s Janitor of Lunacy, is from the soundtrack of The Inner Scar.

Both of Caballero’s feature films are in Russian. He doesn’t speak or understand it. “The language fascinates me because it transports me far. If the film were in Spanish, or English, or Catalan, it would be a lot more familiar. In contrast, Russian makes it like a fairytale, it’s more beautiful to me and gives it this air of a fable.”

Born and raised in Barcelona, Caballero has always been involved with art in one form or another. In high school, he briefly studied music, design, art, sculpture. Barely a teenager, he became involved with the Spanish comic underground, skipping class to hang out with the artists behind the cult, adult comic magazine El Víbora. By the time he was 18, he and two artist friends had formed Los Rinos, “a group of ‘plastic terrorism’”, as they described themselves. “We did graffiti, we did performances that were quite heavy.”

Caballero points to the work they did on the idea of sacrifice. Shocking and repulsive, Rinosacrifici is more a piece of video art than a performance, in that the four sacrificial acts were performed only once, for the camera. Subtitled “the Rinos’ crude, domestic vision of sacrifice”, it shows each of the members performing a sacrifice in the context of their home: one ingests copious amounts of food that he then regurgitates; another prepares a mouse-infused milkshake; the third decapitates a pigeon with his penis … Marcel·lí Antúnez Roca, also a member of the trio, describes Rinosacrifici as a “disagreeable video, very nihilistic, but also very efficient when it came to presenting the problematic concept of sacrifice”. A glimpse of it appears briefly in Finisterrae.

This was a moment in the 80s, Caballero says, almost in an attempt to justify it. “When you’re young … you’re trying everything and going all the way, and that mad drive, that energy, is great. Would I do it now? No. But do I regret it? No.” Anyway, he adds: “We’re now living in an era that’s way more fascist when it comes to censorship.” In his view, society has become a lot more judgmental and intolerant, more subjects have become taboo. “Before, you could do this stuff and people could agree with it or not,” he says, but when more recently he stuffed a dog and put it on wheels: “The animal rights activists wanted to kill me.”

Los Rinos were active from 1985 to 1991. They appropriated the bullseye as their symbol, which they graffitied all over town. They even had matching suits designed, which only augmented their eccentricity. Spanish critic Jordi Costa calls Los Rinos “one of the strangest and most aggressive formations of the Catalan vanguard”. Writing about the group’s legacy as recently as March 2015, he described their work as not merely provocative, but an example of what he calls post-humorist. “Post-humour seeks not comic alleviation,” he wrote, “but perplexion, confusion, discomfort, cold sweats … The post-humorist is a conjurer of uncomfortable silences.”

This is certainly a quality that marks Caballero’s subsequent work, to this day. In 1993, he made the installation El Clamor de la Humanidad me Oprime por su Tumulto me Veo Privado del Sueño (Humanity’s Outcry Oppresses me because of its Tumult I am Deprived of Sleep). It represents the Earth with three pigs’ bodies sticking out of it. The pigs are real, skinned by Caballero himself, who mentions in passing that as a teenager he worked as a butcher at La Boquería, Barcelona’s famous market. Thanks to this job he was able to buy his first synthesizer.

Using the skin of the pigs, Caballero constructed tubes through which you could peek inside the globe. You would literally have to look through the butt holes of the pigs to see a video of the artist with his feet submerged in water, looking all zen, and a stuffed bird flying around in circles. “I was making fun of the false spirituality of a lot of art that exists,” he explains.

After this, Caballero made a radical shift. “I didn’t feel comfortable in the art world because it became all very established,” he admits. Always a nihilist, the idea of having to do things a certain way didn’t go well with him. “From that moment,” he says, “I left the art world because I got tired of it all. It was quite a difficult moment; art had gone from an era of splendour into a harsh one.”

Restless and defiant, he chose instead to carve out a niche for himself, inventing, together with music journalist Ricard Robles and fellow sound and visual artist Enric Palau, an alternative space for the expression of his quirky artistic impulse. In 1994, Sónar was born. It quickly became Barcelona’s premiere festival of “advanced music and new media art”, as it is dubbed. Since then, the three-day event has grown in size, scope and popularity to become one the most forward-looking festivals in the world. And Caballero is the mastermind behind the emblematic image of Sónar, the visual campaign defining and redefining the festival every year.

Creating Sónar’s image – or, in his words, “an image that has nothing to do with anything, but that works and sells the festival, because we shouldn’t forget that we do have to sell tickets” – has become the ultimate platform for his artistic work. It is a lot more interesting than the art world, he says, “because you have so much more freedom to do what you want; you don’t depend on the collectors, or merchants, or curators who decide if it’s good or bad. It’s much easier to do what you want making the image of a festival than standing in line at the museum. And more people see your work.”

The campaigns are always predictably unpredictable. Year after year, they surprise, perplex, catch you off guard. They have been known to stir controversies and provoke harshcriticism. Taken as a whole, they unlock the door to Caballero’s imagination and provide a breadth of insight into the artist’s inspirations and obsessions, even, on a more subtle level, his frustrations with society. Lest we forget, at the bottom of it all lies a childlike desire to have fun and make fun, a cheekiness sometimes mistaken for perversity.

The dog on wheels makes an appearance in 1999, reminding us of Caballero’s ever-present love for animals and taxidermy. There’s the fascination with nature, and snow in particular. Sónar happens in the middle of summer, and yet, in 2009, the campaign was all about snow. Sometimes it can be as as subtle and paradoxical as the winter landscape propped up as background for a Brazilian carnival queen.

“Taxidermy, nature, the cold, humour, all these are elements that repeat in my work,” Caballero admits, but “my images have many layers. You can stay with the joke, or the poetic imagery,” he adds, but on a deeper level there can be harsh realities or inconspicuous social commentary. It’s easy, for example, to get distracted by the long legs of the model-cum-photographer and flashy wheels that make up Sónar’s image in 2004, but lurking in the background, largely unnoticed, is a priest with two little boys …

Of all Caballero’s offbeat fascinations and motifs, it is the paranormal that tickles his imagination the most. All three of his films, discussed at length above, were developed within the framework of Sónar’s image. Apart from the ghosts, the dwarves and the potatoes possessed by African spirits, Caballero also has an affinity for twins.

In 2000, he chose as Sónar’s faces two sets of twins with supernatural powers. One pair – in a clear homage to Tarkovsky – can levitate; the other can live without air. But the image of two elderly women with plastic bags over their heads went largely misunderstood, stirring controversy in the Catalan parliament where a female MP accused the campaign of promoting violence against women. Caballero’s response? “Imagine: we bring forth [images of] women with powers, superhumans, and they see it as a validation of abuse …”

Twins appear again in the campaign for 2015 with the wedding of two identical couples, the hallucinatory mirror-effect doubled once more by four matching puppets. The extras are also sets of twins. The aesthetic is once again of a sombre tone; the brides are ghastly, the grooms’ grins rather unnatural. When asked about his tendency towards portraying the obscure and macabre, Caballero is taken aback. 

“I don’t see it as dark, I don’t see it as obscure. It’s bizarre, it’s strange,” he admits. “They are strange worlds indeed, but for me that line between dark and light is not the same as for you.” He talks about Japanese cinema, particularly Studio Ghibli animated films such as Princess Mononoke, where “the line between good and bad is never as pronounced as it is in Walt Disney. The good can be a little bit bad and the bad can be a little bit good, because people are fluid, no?” He smiles, a playful spark lights up inside his deep, black eyes.

“Certain situations attract me that to people seem dark, but for me the dark contains light.”

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