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By Phil Coldiron
“He began sifting through his store of images for a story to recount to them, shielding this place and its particularities from their imaginations.”—John Keene, Counternarratives
“Just because it is possible to invent a narrative excuse for the way something presents itself doesn’t, I think, mean that it is narrative.”—Hollis Frampton
Situated at both the conceptual and temporal centre of John Akomfrah’s first feature, Handsworth Songs (1986), are images not from the protests and riots in Birmingham which gave the film its title, but rather from the events the following month in the North London neighbourhood of Broadwater Farm, where the death of Cynthia Jarrett from heart failure during an unnecessary raid on her home led to anti-police protests and street fighting, and eventually the death of a policeman. Akomfrah’s footage shows a group of almost exclusively white photographers and cameramen jockeying for the closest view while nervously focusing to get their shot of a sidewalk memorial before cutting to a brief image of a surveillance camera and finally to a long view of the lengthy procession as a whole, which an onscreen title identifies as “The Funeral of Mrs. Cynthia Jarrett.” The dialectical movement through these shots marks a highpoint of clarity and complexity of montage conceived on Eisenstein’s model, passing from the global problem of a culture ceaselessly demanding more images of everything through the point where such a culture becomes indistinguishable from the total coverage of a repressive state, and finally to the confrontation which the film itself enacts between the images presented by the media’s coverage of the anti-police events of the fall of 1985 and those of a popular cinema capable of matching, and indeed, exceeding the power of such images of control and oppression. The model of media consumption and production practiced by Akomfrah in his early films has been, wittingly or not, adopted globally by various bodies of popular resistance which have proven the continuing importance of maintaining such flows of counter-hegemonic force, flows which now regularly operate at the level of instant international visibility.
Of course, the relevancy of a practice does not guarantee against new problems arising, and one need look no further than the spectacle of Donald Trump’s relationship to the media to see the ease with which a purely formal conception of such criticism—that is, one lacking an adequate theory of history—slides into the service of the most vicious racism and nationalism. And while it would seem that there is at least some positive value in the existence of images that capture, for example, the American state’s violence against its own citizens, one must weigh whatever this value is against the health of a culture in which the circulation of images of black death is steady enough that Ezekiel Kweku could only bitterly admit in the opening of “American Horror Story,” written in response to the videos showing Baton Rouge police killing Alton Sterling, “At this point, I am a critic of images of men like me, dying. I’m a connoisseur.” We find another connoisseur in the figure of the technocrat selling the latest in wearable camera technology to the local police department, though the comforting delusion of their contribution to history’s progressive march towards justice alleviates anything like the concern evident in Kweku’s careful unpacking of the mechanics of such images, which leads finally to the assertion that “for these videos to prick the conscience, that conscience must already value the lives of those who are dying.” If these images are failing as interventionist gestures, they’re nonetheless doing booming business: the first four YouTube results for “Alton Sterling” total more than five million views, and include uploads by ABC, CBS, and CNN. The fidgety cameraman filmed by Akomfrah at Mrs. Jarrett’s funeral finds a distant, aching echo here in the figure of the citizen torn between the desperate desire to drag injustice into the open and a world in which such an act may amount to little more than ad revenue in the end.
“Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they don’t help us much to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.” This summary of the potential usefulness of violent images given by Susan Sontag in her long essay on war photography, Regarding the Pain of Others, must be tested against the exponentially growing number of images in circulation: the daily number of images posted online has grown by an order of four decimal places in the last decade. Creating images has become a nearly automatic activity, and while their consumption is now the dominant public ritual in the West, it remains true that they don’t help us much to understand. For Sontag, the image is justified in the face of its descriptive shortcomings by taking its ability to serve as the material for an archive built as a guard against naïveté, a bulwark which would ensure that no one could deny the worst. The more images available to this archive, one supposes, the better: as Sontag notes, a greater number of images of violence and suffering cannot be taken to convey any information about whether a given period is more or less brutal than the past. Indeed, the power of images in this model does not depend upon their being viewed. To this end, the social role Sontag envisions for images would appear to obtain: only the most reactionary individuals today continue to deny the existence of the violence delivered daily around the world in the perverse name of law and order. There is ample evidence. The trouble is that the potentially haunting image, after all, remains an image, and it aims as images do today for the widest circulation possible. The moment an image ceases to deal directly with the individual viewer and addresses itself to the task of haunting a culture at large, it risks becoming unspeakably banal. We are briefly and together struck by images such as those of Omran Daqneesh or Alan Kurdi, but whether one hopes they will prick a sympathetic consciousness, or, more hopefully still, help grow sympathy where it is not yet found, a pair of fundamental problems must be dealt with: defining the relationship in our image-glutted culture between a haunting image and a banal one, and reconciling the power held by language with the recent and exponential increase in the power claimed by images.
John Akomfrah’s recent films provide useful opportunities for working through both of these problems. He has, happily, grown exceedingly productive in recent years. Following quickly on his acclaimed presentation at last year’s Venice Biennale of a multi-screen installation on aquatic commerce and disaster, Vertigo Sea, he premiered a trio of films earlier this year in exhibitions at Bristol’s Arnolfini and London’s Lisson Gallery, two of which, The Airport and Auto Da Fé, then travelled to the latter’s recently opened Chelsea outpost, where they comprised the core of his first solo exhibition in New York. While remaining concerned on the level of subject matter with topics Akomfrah has dealt with regularly across the last three decades, these films mark a significant departure in their excision of two components which have consistently shaped the form of his films: found footage and the testimonial interview. And though these films prove less overtly concerned with the essayistic construction of arguments achieved so often with brilliance in his earlier works, they nevertheless fit snugly into Jean-Pierre Gorin’s description of the essay film as “the meandering of an intelligence that tries to multiply the entries and the exits into the material it has elected.” Having offered early elaborations of a number of approaches which have become commonplace in the most sophisticated nonfiction filmmaking (his influence can be felt in the work of artists as varied in sensibility as Hito Steyerl, Ephraim Asili, Rachel Rose, and Thom Andersen), Akomfrah has now conceived a new form for the material he has elected: a musical portraiture of mute figures based in the rhythmic and harmonic movement amongst, between, and within multiple screens of often breathtaking images which move in and out of phase with the films’ equally dense soundtracks. The beauty that once emanated from the clarity of Akomfrah’s insights into the dynamics of history has, over the course of the last decade, steadily been modulated into the stuff of the film itself, affording new vistas onto the problem of how and why images stick with us—a concern which must occupy a critical position in any sufficient conception of an ethical image culture.
The Airport opens with an epigraph taken from James Baldwin’s 1979 essay “Of the Sorrow Songs: The Cross of Redemption.” Written as a review of a recently published volume of jazz history, the piece is rather a free-ranging consideration of what can be understood at all of black American music and the richness it brings to life if one fails to face the fact that it begins, as he writes, “on the auction-block.” And yet, as Baldwin concludes and Akomfrah quotes, “Music is our witness, and our ally. The beat is the confession which recognizes, changes and conquers time. Then, history becomes a garment we can wear, and share, and not a cloak in which to hide: and time becomes a friend.” This model for understanding the haunting capacity of an object or idea does not concern itself with an audience in need of either ethical maintenance or an emotional fix, but rather takes an acknowledgement of suffering as the basic fact of solidarity, the unit out of which the rhythms are built that might sustain hope for the future and alleviate the pain of the present.
Baldwin’s essay lands briefly in its course on an obscure melodrama from 1947, Arthur Lubin’s New Orleans, noteworthy only for the presence and performances of Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, and a long list of star session players filling out the house band. Late in the film, as Holliday soundtracks the exodus of her fellow black performers with “Farewell to Storyville”—the film dramatizes the closing of this historical red light district, shuttered here out of the spite a politically influential white mother feels at her daughter’s dating on the wrong side of town—there is a brief shot which neatly sketches the relationship between The Airport and Auto Da Fé: the camera slowly tracks towards the tuxedoed figure of its light skinned protagonist (the Mexican actor Arturo de Córdova), owner of Storyville’s biggest casino and one half of the romance which has brought about his neighbourhood’s demise, as he stands on a balcony and gazes down on the suffering he finds himself implicated in, and the strength overcoming it in the form of Holliday’s song. This small gesture of the camera marks the duration of his coming to see that this strength is beyond his comprehension; it is, from a different angle, an image of him coming to be haunted.
In New York, The Airport and Auto Da Fé were projected on the shared wall dividing the two “theatres” constructed within the gallery: long, narrowish rooms with three benches each, flanked on either side by spaces hung with large C-type prints of extracted frames. (The presentation in London was, by all accounts, quite different; it seems to have put the films into more direct conversation.) Considered as two sides of the same plane, the films task the circulating audiences with relaying the mismatched gazes that might ultimately connect the “artistes,” as its cast is credited, of The Airport with the “refugees” of Auto Da Fé, the complete picture which might offer common ground exists, for now, only as virtual. Where Handsworth Songs or Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993) performed the critical operations necessary to correct a faulty narrative—the intent being that of the journalist, or historian—these new works have concerned themselves with forms of memory.
The Airport, three wide screens of images glowing with Mediterranean light so heavily filtered it approaches the blue and gold tints of early cinema, follows the course of a day in the area of Athens’ abandoned Ellinikon International Airport, though this temporal conventional—the story which arcs from early morning through sunset—is deployed to unconventional ends, acting more like a frame, situated at a great distance, which allows figures from across the 19th and 20th centuries to mingle in the same fictional space, in “a day.” Playing the Bloom role is an astronaut in full outer space gear, whose face is obscured by a dark-visored helmet that frames its surroundings in its place. As the astronaut wanders the spaces of the airport, he approaches but never achieves any connection with these variously chic individuals. There is an older, ponytailed man in modern eveningwear who spends a considerable amount of time with our guide, including an extended sequence in which the two explore a collapsed building, which rhymes with the underground structure finally reached at the heart of The Zone in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). Two men and two women in the light suiting and patterned silk of the ’60s stalk the airport’s runways individually and in pairs before coming together in a moment that recalls the endless stroll of Buñuel’s Bourgeoisie. There is a cheaply costumed gorilla, first seen hammering away at an ax with a stick, who performs one of the film’s most startling gestures by simply crossing from the leftmost screen to the centre, one of the only instances of such continuity in either work, and certainly the most pronounced; it is disorienting in much the same way as the famous early cut in 2001 (1968), from which the ape seems to have arrived.
Such a method of reading these images amounts to the production of what Frampton identifies as “narrative excuses:” lacking sufficient context to understand this flow of figures—there are also a man and two women in the garb of Edwardian travellers, a woman in a crimson dress who holds her body as if always on the verge of dance, and another who first appears in a graveyard and seems throughout to be in mourning—while presuming that the fact of the camera’s interest itself confirms the existence of some rational narrative capable of accounting for everything in a film. We might consider the figure of the auteur to be the film’s master excuse, and it’s worth noting that Akomfrah does not credit himself with any specific action in the end titles to either of these films. This slipperiness is furthered by The Airport’s dense soundtrack, which surrounds news reports on Greece’s involvement in global events from the Korean War through its own ongoing crisis, with music ranging from Bach, to Callas performing Tosca, to a suite of traditional Greek folk songs (at least some of them sung by the “artistes” themselves). At times, the sound and image tracks come into a conventional harmony—as in the sequence in which the astronaut and the Edwardian ladies sit in the vicinity of a phonograph as the soundtrack plays Callas singing the “Vissi d’arte”—and at others they split in near parallel, offering the space to consider what force continues to hold them together at all.
With its title invoking public burnings and eight chapters bearing headings such as “Brittany 1762: Huguenot devil worshippers not allowed here” and “Bridgetown 1946: Leaving was only a matter of time,” Auto Da Fé returns an urgency absent from The Airport, whose calm tracking shots are matched by the steady drift of its montage. Though the two films’ compositional approaches are consistent, Auto Da Fé’s two screens invite more direct visual contrast, most notably between the recurring images of sentimental items, such as a stuffed animal and suitcases, washing up in the surf (often in crisp black and white against the clear light of the bulk of the film), and moments such as the extraordinarily choreographed sequence in which the camera pans around a courtyard as individuals pass in and out of the frame along tangents to the curve described by the camera’s direction. The former performs something like the opposite of inventing narrative excuses: the power of such images depends on their banality, the degree to which they are found to be too awful for words, a power with which they foreclose on the possibility of any description that might allow for a more full understanding of the situation they condense—the death of migrants due to the hideously unsafe seafaring conditions many thousands are forced to risk every day. The latter pan is but one of many instances in these films in which Akomfrah captures a sense of friendly time, the rhythms of the camera and the space and the people clicking into syncopation, which we might also call solidarity, and defining the movement which shuttles between action and idea.