liquid blackness founder Alessandra Raengo talks with filmmaker and installation artist John Akomfrah about the emergence of the trope of liquidity in his work, in the context of the reversibility between aesthetics, practice, and praxis exhibited since his output with the Black Audio Film Collective, and about the intellectual errantry of his practice ever since. Together they explore liquidity as a feature of double consciousness, a way to comprehend the dispersion of the polyrhythmic, and a key to approach the aesthetic philosophy of collective praxis.
John Akomfrah (b. 1957, Ghana; based in London) is one of the most prolific and influential multiscreen installation artists working on themes of diaspora identity and cultural flows, postcoloniality, migration and refugeeship, and the inextricable links between processes of racialization and the violence of the Capitalocene. Through a thirty-five-year career, Akomfrah has worked nimbly, creatively, and uninhibitedly in a variety of modes in and out of gallery spaces, including theatrically released feature film and made-for-TV documentary. Yet his distinctive intellectual errantry, or “migrant practice,” has attracted substantial global attention mostly in the last decade, since his return to the art world proper with large-scale multiscreen installations such as The Unfinished Conversation (three channels, HD, 2012) and his contribution to the 2015 Venice Biennale, Vertigo Sea (three channels, HD).1 Overall, through his body of work, numerous interviews, and writings, he has contributed one of the most generative philosophies of black diasporic lens-based work to date.
Initially known for his groundbreaking experimental documentary work with the Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) he cofounded in 1982, and most especially for two films that are being intensely revisited since the death of George Floyd and the current international resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement—Handsworth Songs (1986) and The Last Angel of History (1995)—Akomfrah's more recent installations deal with “impossible to retrieve” moments and sites and/or pursue questions spurred by sometimes unexpected encounters.2Peripeteia (single channel, 2012) imagines the lives of two African figures found in drawings by Albrecht Dürer; Transfigured Night (two channels, HD, 2013), inspired by Arnold Schönberg's composition, explores the “condition of narcolepsy” befalling Ghana's early postcolonial moment; Tropikos (single channel, HD, 2015) “Afro-fabulates” the first contacts between the British and Africans; while Auto da Fé (two channels, HD, 2016), on religious persecution, was prompted by the discovery of a Jewish cemetery in Barbados. Precarity (three channels, HD, 2017) stages the archival lack that surrounds Charles “Buddy” Bolden, the legendary father of New Orleans jazz; and Mimesis: African Soldier (three channels, 2018) celebrates colonial subjects’ contributions to World War I.3
In all of these instances and many others, Akomfrah plunges into the anaoriginarity of black archives by magnifying their jurisgenerative power: their capacity to create, and to constantly renew, aesthetic forms.4 To be clear, in the overwhelming majority of these cases, these archives are not even such; that is, they are not properly archives, and they might not appear jurisgenerative until Akomfrah's work of “bricolage” has fully occurred. Bricolage here stands for the collective and networked research that sustains every project, for the premise that has to be formulated for the work to achieve a measure of unity, and for the capacious concept of montage Akomfrah has developed throughout his practice: a search for “affective proximities” between previously isolated fragments, which acquire value, voice, and singularity if they are allowed to fulfill their intrinsic narcissism, their natural self-possession.5
While many of the works just described explore the past, and particularly the early modern period, Vertigo Sea, Purple (six channels, HD, 2017, commissioned by the Barbican Curve), and Four Nocturnes (three channels, HD, 2019, presented at the 2019 Venice Biennale for the inaugural Ghana pavilion) are part of a trilogy devoted to the destructive and self-destructive impulses that underlie the Anthropocene, and they focus primarily on the impact of this long durée on the present. But this does not make them less archival or less jurisgenerative: only the scale has changed. As essay films, they take a stance within the most cutting-edge conversations in the environmental humanities and new materialism by unequivocally claiming the geologic dimensions and texture of racialization.6 At the same time, they are majestic and audacious “atonal” symphonies of original and archival fragments, always held in productive tension so that each can “speak” its place—fulfill its entelechy, as Akomfrah puts it—in these newly created precarious and open-ended ecosystems. (See fig. 2, from the six-channel installation Purple.)
Ultimately, it is only after Akomfrah's jurisgenerative gathering—his specific curatorial act, in the sense I'll explain momentarily—that all of these archives appear as such, while also constantly pointing back to their anaoriginarity, the sheer impossibility of their coming together before this initial call to gather with the promise that, under the right circumstances, each fragment is going to be heard.7
I approached Akomfrah for this inaugural issue of liquid blackness: journal of aesthetics and black studies first because BAFC's collective praxis was the reason, back in 2014, the very young liquid blackness research group applied for a grant that would allow us to bring to Atlanta the entire BAFC output and watch it over two consecutive weekends.8 After having hosted the “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black American Cinema” film series, we wanted to study a formal collective that, similar to the way the L.A. Rebellion had done as an informal collective, put the politics of aesthetics at the center of their practice. At the time, however, we didn't know that the collective's informality was the source of its groundbreaking creativity and its radical openness to formal experimentation, despite the group's constant negotiations with the mechanisms of public funding.
More importantly, I approached Akomfrah also because the language of liquidity had begun to emerge in his work, in intertitles or section titles, for example, in Precarity and Purple, and as what in this interview he describes as a “guiding trope.” Without overdetermining our conversation, I was interested in finding out whether he would agree that, in some way, liquidity had been present throughout his practice in at least a few ways.
First, liquidity might describe the specific reversibility between aesthetics, practice, and praxis his “ensemble” had carried out since BAFC. I wondered if the inspiration for his errant practice and the pursuit of a form “without guarantees” might be due to the jurisgenerativity of the ensemble itself, since BAFC had always sought ways of inscribing collectivity into form (or perhaps make work whose form would always index the collectivity that had produced it) and therefore the politics of sociality into aesthetics. This, in turn, explains Akomfrah's commitment to maintaining the collectivity of the process—which he discusses in his answer to my question about his current praxis—and his faithfulness to the idea of entelechy as a guiding ethical principle for his multiscreen practice, an ethical stance toward seeing “each work as populated by multiple ontologies all of whom have an index of possibilities at their disposal.” This extends also to his attunement to the way an exhibition space might assert itself as yet another crucial component that has to harmonize with the work itself.9
Second, Akomfrah's long-standing commitment to free jazz as an inspirational aesthetics of mixing, improvisation, and open-endedness is another way he can be regarded as practicing the liquidity of the black arts, in the way Toni Morrison explains it, as the understanding and practicing of one in terms of the other.10 Not only were conversations about the role of black sound and black music central to his collaboration with Arthur Jafa as the cinematographer for Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993) (fig. 3), but the secret technology at the heart of The Last Angel of History is precisely the blues.11
Liquidity can also be a way to think about the uninhibited agnosticism and radical intellectual errancy with which Akomfrah approached and resolved two propositions, or challenges, that emerged from elements of his early practice: the experience with the conceptual possibilities of radical montage involved in the two Expeditions “performances,” and his investment in both the possibilities and the demands of the digital. On one hand, Expeditions One: Signs of Empire (1982) and Expeditions Two: Images of Nationality (1984), generally regarded as quintessential essay films, were in fact 35mm tape slides, shown during live performances involving all seven members of the BAFC group. As such, they also offered a germinal practice for the later multiscreen work, insofar as they required four projectors at all times and live sound mixing. On the other hand, Akomfrah responded to the “ask” that the nonlinearity of digital cinema made toward a multiscreen practice, so that it could fulfill, at a larger scale and with increased complexity, the dialectical possibilities of montage.12
Finally, liquidity for me describes the way BAFC's “avant-garde praxis . . . doubled as the production of a distinctive group subjectivity.”13 Kodwo Eshun makes this assessment in relation to one of the least seen and written about, and arguably one of the most formally challenging, BAFC films: Who Needs a Heart (1991). Perhaps because of the urgencies of this moment of crisis—jokingly, but not entirely, I told some of my closest advisees that I felt my first question to Akomfrah in the impending interview might be “John, how do we organize the general strike?”—the film's formal construction of group subjectivity has acquired, for me, a new relevance. I also regard it as an early experimentation with the “curatorial” project of gathering that Akomfrah has conducted ever since. What is unique about it, however, is that the film curates for form, although its ostensible object is missing.
Commissioned by Channel 4, this supposed documentary about Michael X (born Michael de Freitas, a.k.a. Michael Abdul Malik)—one of the most enigmatic and elusive figures from the Black Power movement in Britain—is also an early study on anaoriginary jurisgenerativity, because the mercurial hustler and self-styled firebrand had left scant public record and nobody willing to speak about him on camera. Consequently, and very quickly, the film proved very challenging to make.14
“If uncovering the truth is impossible,” Akomfrah stated at the time, “then make an impossible film”15—perhaps a strange mirror image of the often-quoted line from Handsworth Songs: “There are no stories on the riots, only ghosts of stories.” Yet writing on the film, Laura Marks argues, while “in one expression, the historical reference exists, buried but recoverable through filmic evocation, . . . in the later turn of phrase the stuff of cinema has become the primary referent, a document of something that does not exist.”16 (See fig. 4: BAFC focused on fashion as a way to recreate the gestures and sensibilities Michael X had catalyzed in his circles.)
Although there is no quotable archive, so to speak, the film—its characters, costumes, gestures, and affects—still gather around something, and the film's form is tasked with making this gathering apparent with its radical choices.
First among them is the decision to adopt both formal drainage, that is, a sound design that mutes, or selectively records characters’ speech, and formal densification, that is, a focus on a parade of Black Power gestures, fashion, and styles, which, disarticulated from the characters’ voices, appear empty affectations.17 Thus on one hand, the ostensible subject of the film seems to have been suctioned out of it, leaving in its wake rarefied environments, filled with affects, theatricality, and posture (see fig. 5).
On the other hand, by employing the “new jazz” of Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, alongside Eric Dolphy, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Roland Kirk, Max Roach, and the Lamas and Tibetan Monks of the Four Great Orders, in a manner that drowns the characters’ dialogue so that they are left gesticulating, agitating, emoting, coming together, and pulling apart without clear and fully intelligible reasons, the musical score articulates something about their gathering.18 “Signatures of new jazz,” writes Eshun, “included independence of instrumental line, imprecision of pitch, loosening of the drum from its role of keeping time, improvisation as composition in real time. All these sonic processes implied the production of a group subjectivity that proposed new kinds of collectivity.”19
Ultimately, in Who Needs a Heart, form stages a withdrawal from/of the object (i.e., Michael X) while demanding a congregation around this very absence. I interpret this as a form of “curation,” understood as the gathering of/as a collective; an experimentation with the visibility of forms of sociality as they take shape around this very assembly. Importantly, that the film is critical of some of the values these forms of sociality espoused—the fact that, in the film, gatherings are actually just parties—only highlights its formal choices. Indeed, by depriving them of substance, the film's form performs an alternative type of gathering against their own ideological emptiness (see fig. 6: fashion choices and hairstyles in the film tell a story of formal attachments).
With this in mind, as I approach the interview, I am interested in questions of praxis and how it indexes itself in the work, now that it has fully returned to the art world and has so dramatically increased in scope and scale. I think of it in the context of the tension between the visibility of formal work and the elision of close analysis that occurs with hard-to-see multiscreen work.20
John Akomfrah and I speak in July 2020, during his COVID-19 self-quarantine in London, which he describes to me as both a holiday and a nightmare, best captured by the Barthesian phrase “vertigo displacement.” I sent some questions/talking points in advance, but I am also determined to let the conversation flow unstructured. I begin with noticing how ideas of liquidity have begun to emerge in the language used in recent works. Is this new? I ask.
JA: It is certainly a guiding trope, not a concept yet.
The problem with the notion of liquidity is that there are several overlapping and competing spaces for what it means: in sociology, social theory, aesthetics. . . . In my case it really started with the attempt to try to block a space in the conceptual schema laid out by an idea of double consciousness, because we have used the term forever—really since Du Bois—without actually spelling out what its components might be. What allows subjectivity to traverse so-called color lines and social lines and what might be the properties that it needs to possess in order for this errancy, for these vagrant possibilities to be realized? It seemed to me that the notion of liquidity may offer some possibilities because it both embodies some ideas of flux and movement, which is not stealth but transparent movement that is aboveboard, as it were. It also carries some ideas of value, of asset, in a political economic sense. So I was trying to understand this question of movement that the liquid alludes to without conveying it as necessarily a lack, or “weakness.”
So the notion of liquidity seemed important in a politically economic sense because it suggests also questions of surplus, assets that are of value in that movement. It was about trying to get at how the historical forces that are shaping blackness allow for the possibility of these conceptual, political, ideological moves. And the moves, when you say it, are fairly obvious to people, but trying to understand them theoretically is slightly more difficult. One of the things we consent with in Afrofuturism is the journey of the polyrhythmic. You can hear it across the planet. You can hear it in Afro-diasporic spaces. But trying to theorize why is slightly more difficult. So the notion of liquidity was about trying to grasp these complexities: finding in spaces all at once, seemingly always already the existence of forces and things which suggest that they could have only arrived there in a liquid move: you can only have Fela Kuti, on the one hand, doing what James Brown is doing at the same time in two different parts of the world. Something needs accounting for this movement. It sounds really complicated, but actually the features of late modernity that we were trying to understand were very basic.21 Everybody knows it. Everybody knows that hip-hop has variances across the planet. Everybody knows that certain dance moves, certain hairstyles, certain fashion moves are planetary; but to explain how it becomes that is a slightly more complicated thing, and the notion of liquidity in the practice was an attempt to address all this.
AR: You talked about this as a surplus. Is there a tension for you when you think about this as value and surplus and the liquidity of capital, which is a principle of generalization and planetarization but also a force of captivity and extraction? These are two forces that are always working against each other.
JA: One of the reasons why Precarity, as a piece, took the form that it did was that I realized I could not specify one variant of this double consciousness without immediately searching for another that might rescue the first one, that might offer it some balance before it is swept away by the forces of capital, if you like. Because there is a way in which the notion of liquidity itself, unmoored from its ethical base, becomes an excuse for dilettantism, and I didn't want that. Then the notion of fugitivity became important to me. It was about offering the notion of liquidity some bandit armor, some possibility of trespass, which made it somewhat illicit, somewhat vagrant, itinerant, without necessarily being globalization—which is also itinerant and all over the place.
I was trying to understand in the practice how to suggest some affinities between late capital and late modern Afro-diasporic identities because, clearly, they are tied into some sort of weird dance, but they are not reducible to each other. And I had to find ways to make this distinction, which has both ethical and aesthetic implications for the work. The reason I don't do commercials for Nike—and I don't judge people who do—and I do work about late black history, instead, is because they are separate. Because those two things are not interchangeable. I am invested in one and not the other.
AR: To continue with aesthetics and aesthetic choices in Precarity: you have remained very faithful to the tableau throughout your practice, but in Precarity it seems to acquire even a stronger significance because it is attached to internment and confinement whereby liquidity is only available as mental errancy and the aesthetic revolution that Buddy Bolden sets in motion, which occurs without his actual physical movements. Talk about your commitment to the tableau, because here the tension is even stronger, I would imagine.
JA: I am still invested in the practice of portraiture, in figuration, in some of the staples of historical drama, in very Deleuzian ways, because I believe it is possible to inhabit them and almost “contaminate” them from within, and make them do other things (fig. 7). And this seems to be critical for figures who in the past have elided the portrait and figuration. There is, as far as I am aware, only one portrait, only one image, of Charles “Buddy” Bolden, and a series of documents. And that's it. So it is an act of supreme hubris on my part to propose the idea that one could make a historical drama on such a figure, given the overwhelming evidence of an absence.22
Even though [Precarity] feels like a costume drama, it is most definitely not, because there is no evidence for it, and I am very invested in this almost criminal act of inventing pasts, especially since the absence of such a past is not natural, God-given, but rather a fate bestowed on these people. There are very clear narratological privileges that have been denied certain historical subjects, like Charles “Buddy” Bolden, so the act of claiming the mantle of normalcy is almost an act of hubris on my part, but I enjoy that. Does that mean that if I see the historical drama in any other form that I am enamored with it . . . ? Not really. I especially don't watch it because of that. Because what it seems to underscore is a certain kind of privilege.
When you see a costume drama from the 1900s in America or Europe, you know you are going to be prescribed a certain hierarchy of identities in which the figure of color would sit at some sort of conceptual bottom propping up some edifice. This is a complete fiction, because certainly in the lives of those figures of color at the time they didn't live as if they understood their experience to be the bottom of a hierarchy. They might have known that they were the victims of certain raciological moves, but they didn't live necessarily thinking “I have got a pyramid on my head.” So I can't watch them for those reasons, but I like making them as a way of reinvoking and reinscribing in a certain lost tableau the possibilities of black existence. I think that's ethically important.
As for the aesthetic claims, the tableau feels important to me—as I have said probably too many times for this to be of any interest to anybody, but I'll say it again—because I am attached to some of the later motifs of Romanticism because of the historical links with abolitionism. It seems to me that the debt that the black diasporic universe owes to abolitionism, in its multiracial variation, is just not paid enough attention to, and when you look at the constituent parts of abolitionism, the question of late Romanticism as a movement and aesthetic credo played a major part. Yes, there were religious nutcases all over the place, but there were lots of people who were very committed to the now very problematic notion of “brotherhood” as a refuge from a cosmic order in which God ruled over everybody in a hierarchy, and they were committed to the notion of brotherhood precisely because of the disappearance of the Almighty.
It's a late move, and I still find it interesting as a frame for putting together us, the planet, other species, and other beings and to make those connections in the frame. And the tableau frame appears to me to offer those democratic possibilities. So, yes, I am still attached to it. It is not the only one I am attached to now, but still very much (fig. 8).
AR: Let's go back to the act of hubris, as you called it, which of course it is not. I have been thinking about it through Fred Moten's idea of the jurisgenerativity of the archive and the anaoriginarity of Blackness: the fact that it is always previous, always already there. And this previousness is always necessarily formally jurisgenerative, and that's why there is this mandate to create, to fashion forms, in the attempt to retrieve—although one is not really retrieving the point of origin, because it is always receding. To me, Precarity is one of the places where this is the clearest, although you have done it all over your work. And I wonder if that's an act of liquidity as well: this kind of activating something, while knowing perfectly well that you are not activating the beginning of it.
JA: One of the things that I find interesting about archival work is that it allows for formulations of unity, formulations of address and perspective and of narrative that are not there in the elsewhere. It's almost a banality to state this, but the act of staging the piece is usually the first time that many of these constitutive elements come together. They don't exist as a whole. The work is a reference to the parts. It's literally about relocating fragments in the present, which otherwise remain literally that: just fragments. I agree with you to the extent that there are always already these things as fragments, but there is still both an ethical and an aesthetic task of making narrative with those elements, and that's where our agency and our aesthetic strategies are critical, because without those, that magic doesn't happen. These are not quotations in a very direct sense. Especially in the multiscreen work. It is literally impossible to find multiscreen segments of a historic past in any library; it's just not there; you literally have to make it. You have to formulate the premise for it. Just before we started talking, I was looking precisely at that.
I am looking at something and I am confronted again with how elusive and how impossible this task is. I worked on something three years ago and ordered a whole series of archival pieces, which are being assembled into chapters. It's on a drive and I had not seen it in two years, and I look at it and I am literally at a loss to figure out what the organizing principles were. I literally have to relearn again what it was that I thought was interesting about putting things together in a certain narrative order. It's really not God-given and it's not like riding a bike. You do forget.
The act of willing oneself into a dialogue, into some sort of relation with the material, is a fraught one and it happens, as Stuart Hall would say, “without guarantee,” other than the vaguely utopic one of the images saying, “we are here as we promised.” But other than that, I don't think there is any other guarantee.
AR: I am really interested in this because it is getting us to the question of praxis. I have always found it so compelling and ethically important that you have talked about images as others, other subjects, that compel the same ethical response. They speak to you and they exist on their own terms, and we have to honor that fact. At the same time, your practice is a collective one: you started as part of a formal collective and continued to work collectively. What do these two types of “collectivity” mean for the process? They seem to permeate every stage of it.
JA: The project I am talking about has archival materials from the Library of Congress, the British Film Institute, the BBC's Library, and a few other smaller ones. Each one of them has been researched and foraged by a different person. So Lina Gopaul did the Library of Congress, Ashitey Akomfrah did the BFI, and David Lawson did the BBC. When they are doing that, we are talking about what it is that we are after. But since there are millions of possibilities, you have to invoke your own judgment in the selection because you have to do this in the amount of time you got. So each person has to exercise a certain amount of judicious care, but also bring their own reflection based on how we have selected this stuff in the past. . . . It's a little bit like a war of maneuver. You know you want stuff on a certain theme, let's say “the winter,” for example. You might not necessarily get everything in any of these libraries called “the winter,” so each person has to break down into components what they think might constitute “wintery images”—bar scenes, nighttime bar scenes, people in coats. . . . The syntax, the lexicon of “winteriness” is going to be necessarily different for everybody. So in this very banal but also very practical way, the process of foraging and bringing to the table begins. And when it comes, there is no way I can physically look at all this stuff, so other people are sieving through it and making other choices, including the researchers in the places the materials are coming from. Very decentered practice, with rhizomatic connections across a variety of places—some of which are in touch with each other, others not necessarily—sometimes using us as the vector for connecting.
Almost all the pieces start like that. That applies to the search for images, but also for props, costumes . . . just about everything. In the main process of bringing them together, sometimes I am not necessarily present for most of it, including for shooting. I am not necessarily there because I might be doing something else.
I have worked long enough with enough people to have arrived at a kind of code among us, who share a certain shorthand about how things can be realized and what it takes to provide the thing with sufficient possibilities so that every time all the elements are challenging each other for the right to exist. Because without that, a certain kind of inertia and complacency sets in on all our parts: images, text, people . . . everyone assumes that they know, in advance, what has to happen. I need everything to be in a state of alertness and vigilance at all times—with each other and with ourselves. And that way, the frisson of possibilities remains charging the air of the thing as it grows. Sometimes it stays . . . because things are still shifting, they have not quite settled into a shared understanding with each other.
It's not unusual for me to finally install something, look at it, and go, “No, that's not right. Let's go back.” Because [multiscreen practice] is one of the few image-based types of work which is absolutely reliant on site-specificity. The room, the space has to be large, and if it's not large, maybe it starts to say to the work, “You don't belong here.” And if you are fortunate to be around, maybe you can start to hear this dialogue. And sometimes it's the jealousies of things in dialogue, but sometimes it's a serious conversation. And when you hear it, and you are moved enough to agree with the space, then the work is talking back and recalibrating slightly in order for it to go back. And usually when it goes back, there is a shared agreement among the elements that it is the right thing to do.
The best facility or faculty that makers have, or need, is the facility or ability to hear especially places and things speaking. You have to be both alert and lazy enough to be there. To be in on that conversation when it starts, because you miss it at your peril. I don't have the arrogance to think that this voodoo prowess of things can be overridden by what I think or say. Ever since The Last Angel of History I have believed in this notion of entelechy, in this idea that things, places, objects are charged with their own quasi-ontological powers, and those powers impinge and shape what is possible to do both with them and to them.
All these conversations with the work take place in a discourse of encouragement and persuasion. As I have said before, all things and objects necessarily have a kind of narcissism at their core because that's what distinguishes them. “I am this book and not that book.” It's a quality of self-possession. And once you recognize that, you want to say, “Yes you are two books, but I would like you also to sit on the shelf like this. Do you think you can do that? [If you did that] you'd bring an order to my life and a certain clarity to the space in which you are.”
AR: Yes, I have heard you say this before, but it never struck me how it characterizes every single step of the process, including how the work ends up in the space. That's the part that was missing for me. And to digress, on a personal note, in order to see your work I have to get on a plane. I have been chasing your work all over the world. I saw Vertigo Sea in Manchester. I happened to be in London, and I took a day trip, timed myself to be back in London for dinner, and I got to see it twice. I took lots of notes, but then I left that notebook on an airplane. I felt like I lost a limb! Of course, I got to see Vertigo Sea later, in both New York and San Francisco, but the point is that I both understand this exclusivity and resent the exclusivity for how precarious it is.
JA: These are interesting features of the moment that we are in: I consciously decided to go back to the art world because I started to realize that (1) I was waiting too long for things to happen in the other spaces, and (2) when I got into those other spaces there were too many voices, other than the ones I am working with, also wanting to be in that space and I couldn't give the works the kind of singularity that they were calling for. So I am having to persuade pieces to coexist in this shared détente. I wanted a space where I could be faithful to the discourse with spaces, with objects, with the fragments that I persuaded into this kind of symphonic whole. Yes, the flip side is that fewer people get to see the work, but the work begins to exist in some sort of harmony with itself. I got tired of the things I had to say I am not going to do because I just could not do them in the way that ten thousand voices other than me and my crew wanted them to be done. You get tired of saying, “I can't do this with you guys, I have gone this far, but we cannot go any farther.”
I am tired, and I am not getting any younger, and I just wanted to realize a few more things in the form in which they were imagined. This is not to say that the practice itself is not open-ended. As I've said to you at the beginning, it is the most open-ended of practices: open-ended to everything, including the work itself. Everybody has a role to play here. But I couldn't do it anymore in the other spaces, which didn't offer those guarantees and continued to mislead everything and everyone about what it was that we were going to do.
All I usually say, to my colleagues, my crew, my books, every image I see is this: “I promise you that at some point, we'll all get the chance to speak about what we are going to do. How? I don't know it yet.” I have to literally see each work as populated by multiple ontologies all of whom have an index of possibilities at their disposal, which they are going to offer and throw into the mix. Once it feels as if some consensus has been reached between us, then the thing must be allowed to go and exist as it is. Because if it's not, then the failure is not really just one of vision but it's the betrayal of a process which stretches back to the very formation of the thing itself. So I am after spaces and places that allow those open-ended dialogues to play out to their “logical” conclusions, and then to be left the fuck alone, including by me, to do what they need to do. The exclusivity is a troubling one given where the work usually comes from. These places where the work is being shown. . . . I would like a few more people of color, I would like for more difference to be registered, of course. But I can't put that as the cart in front of the horse, because the reason why the work is there has its own legitimacy, and I am trying to be faithful to competing legitimacies. And occasionally you get it right and sometimes you don't.
The shortest time that Vertigo Sea was shown was for a day and a night in Toronto. It was a really curious festival—I can't remember the name—which takes place over twenty-four hours.
Thousands of people flooded into this place. But I am not sure that on the basis of just the pure calculus of numbers that is necessarily better than it playing in a small town in Denmark over six months where sixteen hundred people see it, but some are so moved that they write to me saying I am doing my dissertation on this and that, or I am making a film . . . or it changed the way I look at the world, or I am going to tell my dad not to go whale hunting anymore. . . . Every little bit helps.
I am very happy about it. I'll take that.
AR: To wrap it up and to think about spectatorship, I do think it makes some ethical demands on the viewer; it makes an ask, and there is nothing wrong with that. But in keeping with the theme of the journal and also coming back to the question of double consciousness that we started with, would you say this is a liquid practice? This constant negotiation, this agility and fluidity as an ethical stance, this faithfulness to the process all the way through, without guarantees?
JA: I have spent so much time both in my own head and in conversations with people and objects espousing the discipline of bricolage and open-endedness and recyclability—and all these things are important to me. But you are also aware that there are certain dangers, certain flaws in this kind of willed cosmopolitanism if it is seen to be merely dilettantish or if it is seen to be without sufficient amour propre to be fully engaged with anything. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Because the cosmopolitanism that I am talking about is the one that can say to a city in England like Bristol that has had a human trafficker, serial murderer standing on a pedestal for 125 years and valorizes this presence as some sort of good thing . . . the cosmopolitanism I am talking about says, “No, actually you need to respect that people who don't look like that guy immortalized, now live in this space and have rights too.” So before this becomes a legal question there is an ethical question: why the fuck are you shoving this trafficker in our face? I don't believe in the cosmopolitanism that would say in these instances this is just one more fragment of a very interesting mosaic. There are limits to what is permissible and what is acceptable in a space in which you want difference to grow. And those limits involve being aware that injury can be caused to difference by tolerating things that are unacceptable.
I don't believe that the cosmopolitan credo, even though it has its dangers and possibilities, only leads to that. I don't believe that. The cosmopolitanism that I am keen to defend is the one that is central to the practice. And the practice at the moment has no real investment on the question of origin nor a serious investment in questions of wholeness, because I am trying to persuade discordant discursive elements that this atonal symphony (which is what would necessarily happen when you are trying to have discordant discursive elements together) is worth having. So I can't do that and at the same time say, really, I am a one-world theorist and I am monoculturalist. I can't. I am both ethically and aesthetically attached to those things which are supposed to denote wakelessness, fitness, and so on, because those are the things that weaponize, challenge, and gain consent from the disparate elements that make up my practice. And as long as that is the case, I don't see any reason to not have faith in it.
Does the origin of certain assumptions warrant their occasionally being put to scrutiny and maybe recalibrated slightly? Yes. I read somewhere in one of your pieces a discussion about the ontological. Yes of course. On this same hard drive that I am telling you about, I got a series of images from films about the history of Ghana, and they are clearly for me primal scenes. Sometimes I even recognize some people in them. And not just famous people. There is a way in which the phantom stokes those images. Then I got another set of stuff, which is images of labor in the American South in the 1900s and 1920s, where the phantom doesn't stoke them in quite the same way. I am not specterized by those images. I recognize them in a general sense—that these are images of black life and many of those people would probably not be in the same place fifteen years later because this is just on the eve of the Great Migration, so you can tell that four out of ten of those people I am looking at ended up in Los Angeles or Chicago or Wisconsin . . . anywhere else. So they are evoking certain phantom-like questions, but I am not guided principally by those. Other questions are also coming to mind: what can we do with this now? What is the use of this in the present? What is the value of this in the present? And those are concrete epistemological questions about the value of this work. So I have different phenomenological relations to different parts of the “archive” because I recognize the different ontologies they possess. I wouldn't necessarily have said that a decade ago. A decade ago, they would have all been part of the Afro-diasporic sublime; they would have been from the vaults of black memory, as Afrofuturists would have it. Now I am forced to register differences within the vaults, and different uses too—which is not a bad thing at all. It's probably just growing old, to be honest. Growing up.
See the spring 2014 Symposium at MIT, Cinematic Migrations, convened by artist and scholar Renée Green to address the centrality of the theme, practice, and epistemology of migration in John Akomfrah's work, as well as a principle of film form, a reflection on digital technologies, and on the “meandering of the intelligence” afforded by the essay film genre (in Jean-Pierre Gorin's formulation, quoted in Ventura, Cinematic Migrations).
Akomfrah cofounded the BAFC in 1982 with Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, Trevor Mathison, and Reece Auguiste. While BAFC was active from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, in 1998 Akomfrah, David Lawson, and Lina Gopaul cofounded his current production company, Smoking Dogs Films.
The Schönberg composition that inspires Transfigured Night is in turn based on a poem about two lovers who are walking on a moonlit night, and the woman says, “Don't take this too hard, I am carrying someone else's child, but I love you,” and he says, “That's OK; on this transfiguring night, our love will be the transfiguring force.” Akomfrah interprets this as descriptive of a dialogue between the postcolonial state and its subject on the night of independence: “I am a pregnant entity carrying something from somewhere else, but I belong to you.” Immediately after, the state turned into a narcoleptic state. Based on Akomfrah's account, given in conversation with Yesomi Umolu (transcribed on the occasion of the exhibition Imaginary Possessions at the Eli and Edythe Broad Museum, East Lansing, MI, September 19, 2014–February 1, 2015 [author's notes]). “Fabulation,” is a Deleuzian idea that Tavia Nyong'o takes up in Afro-Fabulations.
I build on Fred Moten's concept as developed in Stolen Life (1–95) and discussed in Arthur Jafa's film Dreams are Colder than Death (2013), on which I further elaborate in the introduction to this issue, “Black Study @ GSU.” Here, I have listed only some of the works I have seen and nothing that I have not seen, the reason for which should become clear during the interview.
Akomfrah discusses the idea of affective proximity in a conversation with Anthony Downey at Arnolfini Gallery (“In Conversation, Vertigo Sea”) as well as with Ekow Eshun at Lisson Gallery (“Lisson Gallery Weekend Talk”).
The Last Angel of History is probably the most consequential early work to make anaoriginary its subject matter and concern, insofar as it is an early “record” of what in the interview Akomfrah describes as the Afrofuturist sublime: it contributes to an archive that is just beginning to be compiled while being a foundational archival artifact. It is also BAFC's most explicitly digitopic work and one that might be seen as prefiguring the later multiscreen practice in the way it pursues a database aesthetics and concurrent manners of unfolding. See Akomfrah, “Digitopia”; Marks, “Monad, Database, Remix”; and Keeling, Queer Times, Black Futures. See also Marriott, “Bastard Allegories.”
We also invited producer David Lawson; artist, curator, and art historian Eddie Chambers, one of the seminal figures of the Black Arts renaissance in 1980s Britain; and film scholar Kara Keeling, who I knew was working on The Last Angel of History.
I am both paraphrasing and quoting from Akomfrah's words in the interview below.
Morrison, “Abrupt Stops.” For a longer discussion of Morrison's concept, see the introduction to this issue. Obviously, Akomfrah has also been in close conversation with art history and the history of literature.
Chude-Sokei, Sound of Culture. By Akomfrah's account, he agreed with Jafa about the aesthetic possibilities of the “Italian option,” that is, the idea that one could find in Italian film productions’ matter-of-fact postsynchronization inspiration for further experimentation with disarticulating the expected coherence of the black figure. However, they disagreed on what Akomfrah called Jafa's categorical mistake of thinking black cinema as jazz rather than thinking about the two as having a mimetic relationship. See Akomfrah, “In Conversation with Tina Campt”; and Akomfrah, “Lisson Gallery Weekend Talk.”
In fact, upon researching documentation on Michael X's activities, including the founding and running of the Black House, a cultural and artistic center of the British Black Power movement, BAFC encountered a stone wall of silence and evasion on the part of people who had been involved at the time. In part because Michael X's activities were often illegal and in part because he had perfected a fundraising method which, retroactively, could not / should not leave any trace: exploiting white guilt. Indeed, Michael X was able to gather the support of high-profile sponsors, such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who, among other things, donated their hair to the Black House, as seen in a rare piece of archival footage included in the film. Kunzelman, “Fluidity of Black Radicalism in 1980s Britain,” 64. See also Williams, Michael X.
Quoted in Marks, “Ghosts of Stories,” 56.
Thus Marks concludes, “To find a trace of the real events, Who Needs a Heart? [sic] turns inward, to gestures, colors, music. Hence the sense of weightlessness and inversion that baffled so many Black Audio fans” (“Ghosts of Stories,” 56); emphasis added.
This is achieved primarily by the film's sound design, which foregrounds ambient sounds and what Steven Connor describes as the “noisy sounds” of voices expressing affect and pathos rather than speech, and pantomime rather than dialogue (Beyond Words, 7–11).
Eshun, “Untimely Meditations,” 44; emphasis added.
“We” refers to Akomfrah's creative team.