'Galleries are not for me’: Imran Perretta on state surveillance and his difficult relationship with art spaces

As his latest film exploring the treatment of young Muslim men tours the UK, opening at Baltic in Gateshead this weekend, Perretta explains how he never wanted to be in the art world

Imran Peretta © Lenka Rayn H

Imran Peretta © Lenka Rayn H

Politics and personal experience combine in the films of Imran Perretta. The son of a Bangladeshi mother and an Italian father, he grew up in South London in a political landscape shaped by the Islamaphobic “war on terror” in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. His work reflects his acute awareness of the ways in which state aggression is enacted on young men of colour. He is also keenly concerned with the human impact of government policy on the lives of individuals. Last year Perretta was shortlisted for the Jarman Award for 15 days, a film made in response to the refugee crisis in Northern France, which arose out of time he spent with former inhabitants of the “jungle” who continue to live rough in the woods surrounding Calais, in particular one person whose assumed name gives the film its title. Perretta is also a musician and poet: his poems accompany his films and also act as their starting point. His most recent film commission is the destructors, currently showing at Chisenhale Gallery, London (until 5 April), and touring to the Baltic in Gateshead (opening on 14 March) and the Whitworth in Manchester. Shot on location in Tower Hamlets, East London and presented across two screens, it also uses his poetic writing, an atmospheric soundtrack and computer-generated special effects to explore the complexities of coming of age as a young Muslim man in the UK.

The Art Newspaper: the destructors takes its title from a Graham Greene short story written in 1954 which is set in post-war London and follows a gang of young men who plot to demolish an old man’s house. What was it about this story that inspired you?

Imran Perretta: I studied it at school around the time the Twin Towers came down and it was also around that time that my body was growing at this exponential rate and I started to be seen as a public threat. I think reading the story about these young boys and how they were marked for their capacity for violence chimed with me because that was the way in which my body was also starting to be seen and it was a very uncomfortable realisation. The boys in the story were seeing this man’s house in a time of devastation just after the Blitz and I was interested in the parallel with the beginnings of the war on terror around the same time. So there were all these cultural and historical markers that meant that my narrative had this sort of eerie symbolic relationship with the narrative in the short story and this has always stuck with me.

Still from the destructors (2019). The artist rarely shows the full faces of the protagonists in his work © Chisenhale Gallery and Spike Island; commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery, Spike Island, the Whitworth and the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

In the film, three young men recount their different experiences—a violent encounter on a bus, the experience of being surveilled and the failure of the NHS to offer care for a terminally ill relative—in monologues based on your personal experience. Why was it important to relate events that had actually happened to you?

I was interested in talking about a specific experience of structural oppression and Islamophobia in the hope that, if I spoke very lucidly about some of the things I’ve seen, then it would resonate in one way or another with people who had seen or heard something similar. I was reticent to talk about political forces like austerity and the war on terror in generic terms or just as pieces of legislation when what they do is affect families and individuals in a very intimate way. So what I was trying to do was to use very intimate and personal experiences of having been wronged as a way of aiming upwards at the state and authoritarian politics. I’m coming from a position of trying to critique power structures that have laid a path for me, and I can only do that in an embodied way, otherwise I’d be a commentator rather than someone who has actually experienced these things.

Strange things happen to the building in which the film is set: it starts to fill up with water and smoke wafts in through windows and vents. It seems almost like a protagonist in its own right and under threat from outside forces. There are parallels with the building in Greene’s story.

The building is a community centre that is slowly falling into disrepair because the local council budget was under austerity measures. I wanted to draw attention to its slow decay and the fact that if you erode social provision, what you are eroding are communities, families and real people and so the building becomes a protagonist in the work. You see liquid and gas entering the space as this sort of ingress, these insidious outside forces creeping in as well as drawing attention to the fact that the building is porous and falling apart.

A still from 15 days (2018) Commissioned for the Jerwood/FVU Awards

The water and smoke are computer generated and this use of visual effects is something that recurs in your work—why do you use this imagery?

The core interest for me is how to reference images from conflict and war without actually having to show them—how you reference violence, especially state violence and material devastation, without having to show the people or the places that have suffered in reality. That is really important. We have become so accustomed to seeing black and brown deaths on television and to seeing certain bodies treated with a certain sort of callousness and coldness by the camera. So for me it is how can you show and allude to violence and conflict without actually having to show its real-life effects? How to talk about the things we’ve endured without having to further endure them, that is part of the mission, the political strategy of the work.

I also have an interest in magic realist literature, particularly that which references colonialism, like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. It has this sense of the uncanny, of something that is very close to real life but is in some way extraordinary and abstracted and of using that distance, that suspension of disbelief to talk about things that are historically or culturally traumatic. For me visual effects tap into that idea of the uncanny and how you can create a slightly otherworldly scenario that is actually concretely rooted in the real world, and is almost truer than the truth.

The film’s soundtrack is another important element created by you.

My background is really in sound. I’m interested in how sound, regardless of context, can give a very embodied or visceral response in a viewer or listener. In that sense it’s a tool you can wield in very interesting ways cinematically. It relates to VFX in that I’m interested in the kind of soundtracks you find in war films and horror and thriller films and using them not to talk about espionage and grand action sequences or people running through the trenches, but for someone talking about their anxieties about the world or the situation they find themselves in. It’s this really affective, effective tool for personifying anxiety and depression but also love and joy and care. So for me sound becomes a way of creating both dissonance but also consonance in the work. In a lot of ways the writing comes first, the sound comes second and the image comes last in my thinking, it’s definitely a very important part of what I do.

© Chisenhale Gallery and Spike Island; commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery, Spike Island, the Whitworth and the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

In the destructors and most of your films you rarely see the full faces of the protagonists—why is this?

That’s very important. People of colour are rendered both visible and invisible at all times and against their will. There’s no better example of that than in the government’s Prevent Strategy and how it has forcibly made visible Muslim communities throughout the UK and at the same time has made them invisible in strategic ways. So you have this sense where you are made incredibly visible to the authorities but you can be detained and not seen by your family and friends for years at a time. Visibility becomes this key tool for agency that has been taken away by the state, so trying to crop people and trying to give them back their anonymity was a way of trying to give them back their agency.

I am hyper-visible and have been since I was 14 years old, the first time I was stopped and searched by the police.

Surveillance seems to be a key theme in all your films, whether in your choice of camera angles, the way shots are framed or in the use of drones.

Surveillance is asymmetric insofar as how certain communities are surveilled more than others. And I happen to belong to one that has been surveilled the most in a post-9/11 context. So my sense of self is invariably conditioned by the way I am seen by the state: I am hyper-visible and have been since I was 14 years old, the first time I was stopped and searched by the police. So part of me going on this long and winding road to becoming an artist film-maker is about trying to find a visual language for my own visibility but one that tries to resist the dominant or normative forms of cinematic and state visibility. I’m trying to find something else that can reference my visibility but also critique it. That’s really my mission, so to speak.

© Chisenhale Gallery and Spike Island; commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery, Spike Island, the Whitworth and the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

Are there any particular artists or film-makers who have influenced you?

My main reference has been music videos. Music was the art form that was prized the most in my family: there are a lot of musicians and sound engineers and I include myself in that. I didn’t go to galleries as a kid—my parents didn’t feel like it was a place for them and my sister and I also grew up thinking it wasn’t a space for us. I’m an artist, I have a show, but I still think the gallery is not a space for me—it’s too contested, it’s too problematic and battling against that is also a life’s work.

Yet you’ve been embraced by the art world and have had many shows in museums and galleries—including this touring show of the destructors.

This access is always conditional and it’s not an easy relationship that I have with art-making in the spaces in which I show. I may have been weirdly complicit in that move, but I think the art world chose me; I never, ever thought I’d end up here. Growing up, there were all kinds of options but being an artist was not one of them. Really, I’m a film-maker and a musician and I just happen to work in an experimental enough way that the art world seems to offer an arena for what I’m making. I place no primacy on the gallery as an arena for what I’m doing, though in recent years that has been the place I’ve appeared the most.


Born: London, 1988, lives and works in London

Training: BSc Architecture, Bartlett School of Architecture 2010, MFA Fine Art, Slade School of Fine Art 2014

Key shows: 2019: Spike Island, Bristol

Selected Group Exhibitions: 2019: Jarman Award, Whitechapel Gallery, London; Somerset House, London; 2018: The Edge, Bath; Jerwood Arts, London; 2017: Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridge; Jerwood Arts, London; 2014: Bloomberg New Contemporaries, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London

Still from Brothertobrother (2017) Courtesy of the artist

Key works

15 days (2018)

I had no idea what I was doing with this work, I just wanted to see with my own eyes what was happening in Northern France. I went and stayed for a while and had amazing conversations with lots of people, one of whom was 15 Days—the name comes from an alter ego that he made up on the spot when I first met him. It was trying to bring some shred of humanity and real-life experience to a narrative that has been totally, politically, strategically abstracted to create a binary situation with right actors and wrong actors, the right actors being the state, and the wrong actors the people who found themselves stranded at the border

DESH (2016)

This was shot in Bangladesh when I was having a bit of a nervous breakdown and I wanted to document that. It is about a lot of things: contested notions of home, what it means to have a motherland that you are fundamentally alienated from, and your sense of self and trying to come to terms with these contested ideas. It is about drones and being watched over and starting to tie together these ideas around state power and surveillance and the very embodied experiences of existing in the world in a particular position, as a brown person under capitalism and post 9/11.

Brothertobrother (2017)

This was about an encounter at Heathrow airport when I was briefly detained and questioned on my way to Bangladesh. It tells the story in the form of a poem of coming up against racial profiling and state power, but as enacted on me by a customs officer who was a fellow brown person. So the film is about what it meant for him to be a state actor and for me to be a state victim when we both shared a sense of subjectivity.

Imran Perretta: the destructors, Chisenhale Gallery, London, until 5 April; Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 14 March-28 June; the Whitworth, Manchester, 8 May-22 November