Black Audio Film Collective interview


By Coco Fusco

Originally published in ‘Young, British and Black’ (1988, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, Buffalo, N.Y.).

Coco Fusco: Rather than asking you when the riots took place and when you came together, I would like to get a sense of what ideas, what arguments were being debated at the time that you all began to work.

Lina Gopaul: I’ll just open by saying that there was always a sense of the lines we didn’t want to pursue, lines which were more didactic. That the riots, for example, happened because of x y z, and that these are the reasons and these are the solutions for it regardless of whether they were being thrown out by the Left, be it the white or the Black Left. I think our coming together at that time was an expression of not wanting to take up one of those particular positions. And by choosing not to we threw ourselves into a field that was very grey. We then tried to pull out certain themes that we agreed with – what Stuart Hall (1) might have been saying at that time, or what Paul Gilroy (2) might have been saying. They weren’t as didactic.

John Akomfrah: But you’re not just talking about making Handsworth Songs (1986) are you?

CF: I’d like to go back further prior to Handsworth.

LC: Even before that our position was not one of which you could actually say that it takes its meaning from this or that.

CF: It seems that there was a strong cultural nationalist position that was generated by the Black activist community – and to some extent the more conventionally oriented Black media sectors. But speaking in terms of ideas, in terms of theorizing race and nationality, such activity was not coming out of those sectors.

Reece Auguiste: They were the residues of the 1970s, of the Black Power movements that existed here, which did have a very strong nationalist slant. What motivated us was not wanting to rearticulate past political positions but rather to engage with broader theoretical issues which had not yet been addressed, or at least not in the way that we wanted to address them.
There were many discussions in the ’70s and early ’80s about the post-pan-Africanist vision, or the pan-Africanist vision. And a lot of that was, in many respects, undertheorized. So what we did was to combine, very critically, elements of those debates, drawing also on our own theoretical background which we had developed at colleges. We are in many respects a kind of hybrid: we are able to draw from Foucauldian (3) discourse, psychoanalysis,
Afro-Caribbean discourse, and colonial and neocolonial narratives. I was going to signpost Jacques Lacan, but in many respects I think that Franz Fanon (4) would be closer to what I am communicating. Expeditions (1983), which was our first cultural project, was a way of testing those ideas and trying to extend the power of the images and debates around the colonial and postcolonial moment. In order to do that we had to articulate a particular language and vision of that moment. We felt we could only do so by drawing on those European, theoretical discourses.

JA: If you look at the moment of becoming for the Black film and video sector in this country, there are a number of words which were key. One of them obviously was representation. The other was more a category than a term: colonial discourse. The minute you begin to work out the political etymology of those terms themselves you are effectively charting the histories and trajectories of those individuals and collectivitities.
The notion of representation has been jettisoned into the forefront by a number of discussions in post-Althusserian (5) circles. Different political currents in this country had interest in it for different reasons. What was being debated was the value of a Left political culture and how one represents that culture in discourse theory. Gramscians (6) had an interest in it because they had come to the conciusion that political power and cultural symbolic power were organised around consent. In terms of a Black interest – on one level a number of collectivities, including ourselves, were familiar with the semiologic activities of Parisian intellectuals who were interested in fashion and so on.

CF: You make them sound so trivial. The English talk about politics, and the French talk about fashion.

JA: The interesting thing was when they stopped talking about fashion and started talking about spaghetti.
So all those currents inform how the collective was set up. Four years ago in England you couldn’t sit through a discussion, a film meeting, without representation coming up about fifteen million times.

CF: What was meant by that?

LG: It goes a bit further than that. Before the issue of representation comes about, we were involved in doing work with Expeditions in an attempt to put another phrase or category on the political agenda – colonial discourse. It wasn’t being discussed everywhere, mostly in discussions in particular academic circles. And what we wanted to do was to address those debates, those theories, and to bring that onto a visual landscape.

JA: People used the term representation for a number of reasons. The different uses give you a sense af the complexity of the trajectories involved. At one level people used it to simply talk about questions of figuration. How one places the Black in the scene of writing, the imagination and so on. Others saw it in more juridic terms. How one is enfranchised, if you like, how one buys into the social contract. What is England and what constitutes English social life? Some interests were broadly academic, but we were focussing on how to turn our concerns into a problematic, to use an Althusserian term, in the cultural field. We were interested in representation because it seemed to be partly a way of prying open a negative/positive dichotomy. It seemed to be a way of being able to bypass certain binaries.

CF: Are you referring now to the negative and positive image debates?

JA: Yes! and its specifically English variant – which is obsessed with stereotypes, with grounding every discussion around figuration and the existence – presence and absence in cinema in terms of stereotyping. It was a way of going beyond the discussions which would start at the level of stereotype, then move on to images, and then split images into negative and positive, and so on. We wanted to find a way to bypass this, without confronting it head on. I think that the lobbies which were really interested in debates around stereotyping were too strong, to be honest. And we were too small to take them head on. In a sense the negative/positive image lobby represented all that was acceptable about anti-racism, multiculturalism, etc. It’s the only thing that united everybody who claimed they were against racism.

Everybody was talking about a non-pathology of racism. The Labor party activists would talk about it. So would the Liberals. For the anti-apartheid groups it was the limit-text, if you like. We sensed that it had political inadequacies, and cultural constraints, and that the theoretical consequences of it hadn’t been thought through. But we didn’t know exactly how to replace it. We did not want to try to set ourselves up as another interest group to combat the multiculturalists or the anti-racists.

CF: Can we discuss Expeditions more specifically than in terms of mapping out a political etymology?

RA: The positive/negative image discourse had become the organizing principle of what representation was supposed to have been about, what representation was. Expeditions was an attempt to critique that discourse on positive and negative images. We wanted to go beyond purely descriptive categories and try to forge another kind of analytical strain, which could then open up that space in which we could begin to articulate our own ideas about representation by problematizing representation itself.
When Expeditions was first completed we had a number of theoretical, political and cultural battles with those who had very defined ideas about what representation was. The first point that was made was that it was inaccessible, because we were using language which was grounded in Foucauldian ideas, and Fanonian ideas, and so on. Second, there was the issue of the kind of images we used, which had not been used before. The way, for example, in which we would actually appropriate from English national fictions – like the Albert and Victoria Memorial – going back and really engaging with the archive of colonial memory. We were not only constructing a colonial narrative, but also critiquing what was seen as the colonial moment -critiquing what was seen as the discourse around empire.

JA: When we were making Expeditions, a number of tentative voices were beginning to challenge what was effectively an orthodoxy history in English cultural debate, which was the notion that colonial history and the colonial narrative was past – that it was the instrument of a past English glory which has now foundered. Before there was colonial history, after there’s postcolonial history. And we wanted to problematize that very obvious splitting of memory into past and present. It seemed that the only way we could do that was to pay less attention to what historiographers and political commentators said about past and present, and look at what the iconography of those moments signified now. We weren’t really interested in whether the Victoria and Albert was built in 1898. Nor did we believe that was the only moment that it meant anything, because it is still here and it is still in the middle of London. And ten thousand tourists see it every day. We felt then that the politics of signification was alive.

Avril Johnson: What was also happening around this time was the Falklands war, which had begun the year before. Margaret Thatcher called upon a notion of British identity in which, supposedly, all true Englishmen could identify.

LC: And there were many who argued that the fact that we were chronologically in a postwar era made everything different – that we were postwar theoreticians engaged in a postwar agenda.

CF: I have a clear sense from what you are saying about how this relates to the politics of social life in contemporary England, but I wanted to ask some more aesthetically-oriented questions. Many of the images of empire you use are ones that had already been displaced from classical civilization. The recycling of images that you were playing with for political reasons taps into an aesthetic discourse of neoclassicism that connects you to postmodernism and the transavant-garde.

JA: Two things were happening at the time. On the one hand, formalist photographers and artists – such as the constituency around Block (7) – were becoming much more interested in the expressive qualities of the remnants of the English national past. They were using these remnants in a very formalist sense, as a kind of backdrop against which one mapped out one’s anxieties of difference onto the past. You could see that people were drawing on the neoexpressive qualities of those statues and icons, without necessarily thinking about questions of desire.

CF: One of the desires of postmodernism in its most Eurocentric form is to sever the tie between the political implication and the formal manifestation. In Expeditions you use similar strategies of appropriation with a different motor. Do you see these as two postmodernisms hitting off one another? Were you misread because of this?

JA: Our enterprise emerged before the category of postmodernity meant anything in English aesthetic debates. At the time not even Victor Burgin (8) or any of the high priests of avant-garde theories and debates in this country were using it.

RA: One of the problems of the discourse of postmodernity lies in what it excludes. The crisis that the postmodern is supposed to address is seen as something internal to the logic and the rationale of Western Classical Civilization. In philosophical discourse there is the crisis around reason. Then there is a crisis around form, as manifested in architecture. What interests me most about these debates is the exclusion of the so-called neocolonial world. To me the crisis doesn’t have so much to do with what’s happening to the West, to the internal discourse of the West, as it does with what the non-European world is doing to the West. The crisis now is in Lebanon, in South Africa.

JA: In terms of the beginning of making Expeditions, it’s important to say that there are two convergences there. On the one hand, we realized that there was a kind of reappropriation, which we now understand to be postmodernist reappropriation of the past, taking place in very formalist circles, such as the kind of work that Victor Burgin and others were doing in photography. What we decided to do -which again, with hindsight, we now realize places us firmly in that camp – was to appropriate classical or neoclassical images. But we appropriated them using methods of avant-garde photography which effectively begin with Alexander Rodchenko (9) – extremely angular kinds of framing, etc. That was the key difference. If you look at the formalist work on the other hand, the methods of composition were extremely straightforward. Henri Cartier Bresson (10) could have done it. What people found unnerving about what we were doing was that the play of postmodernism wasn’t there. This parody and pastiche was underpinned by biblical sounding tones concerning colonial narratives and expeditions and so on. We wanted to say that it was an expedition, that on the one hand you went through these exhibitions – you pack your bag from different aesthetic fields, from neoclassical architecture, from Russian formalist photography. But the interest was in colonial narrative. The interest was not, in the end, in play.

CF: Let’s move on to Handsworth Songs. I am interested in the symptomatic qualities of the responses to it. I do think that the fact Handsworth Songs has been the subject of controversy has to do with something larger than the film. It has to do with a desire to damage the kind of position you represent. Salman Rushdie’s frequently mentioned review in The Guardian (11) doesn’t really address the film – he demonstrates no relationship to the filmic aspects of the work. He juxtaposes the notion of an authentic voice to image manipulation.

LC: I think this goes back to what we were saying about where we located ourselves in relation to the political and theoretical positions that prevailed prior to our existence as a collective. When we emerged people tried to didactically map out the cultural and visual terrain for us to slot into.
If they are not actually addressing the film, well then what is it that they are addressing? Transgression, basically. Why is it such a strong response not to the film, but our existence? To what you represent? Those who criticized us most vehemently were prioritizing a line about community and people in the streets. There was no other way of representing yourself other than the way they put forward. That’s what I think is largely behind the sometimes almost violent responses to us.

JA: The question of paternity and transgression was very important. One of the things which people would always say to us was, isn’t Handsworth Songs too avant-garde? Quite simply, the problems we faced in making Handsworth were very practical ones – to do with melodrama – orchestrating means of identification, rather than distancing people and dazzling them with techniques. The editing might be considered unconventional, but the techniques are very straightforward. So it’s not avant-garde in that sense. My mistake was in assuming people wouldn’t see it as a transgressive text.
In terms of the established boundaries of discussion – aesthetic interventions around race – there were questions of paternity at stake. In other words, who was the holder of the law – the law of enunciation? Who had the right to speak, who had the right to map out and broaden the field that everybody had to speak in? It was in that sense that the film was received as a transgressive text, because it clearly didn’t fall into line with the established concordat concerning the Black intelligensia and their discussion of race. That then makes the film an avant-garde text. Those who were willing to live with a more mixed economy of dialogue around figuration and race accepted it, and those who didn’t, didn’t accept it.
That was one symptom, but the morbidity also has to do with the inability of cultural workers to make any meaningful sense of that moment. One has the sense that people were trapped in their own rhetoric, claiming that the 1981 riots occured because of unemployment, etc. having to signpost all the social reasons why Black people take to the streets. The minute we began to speak and give the impression that somehow one was going to reopen the questions rather than repeat the answers, people got very nervous.

AJ: Those people who felt trapped had benefitted from what happened in 1981. They don’t want to recognize that the problem still exists.

LG: It was also a move away from the specificity of location. After 1981, there was a generalized understanding of the riots, whereas in 1985 it was different. How can we begin to understand this situation, people would ask, in Birmingham, which didn’t riot in 1981? Birmingham has a very specific Black political history. It’s one of the central spots for Black political development and for anti-racist development. It has a number of institutions, like the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which are based within those communities. There is something quite specific happening there.

JA: We have to be careful not to overestimate the transgressive potential of certain kinds of aesthetic intervention. At a certain point, the nightmares which weigh on the brain are not necessarily historical ones – they are very conjunctural ones. The fact of the matter is that a number of things were collapsing at a certain point. And the film in many ways mirrors that collapse. It’s not an avantgardist intervention, in the sense that it doesn’t frame a series of devices that would get us out of the crisis. It mirrors those forms collapsing, and it says what a shame.

CF: How did people respond to that sort of mirror?

JA: When people saw the film they saw all the fractures, all the uneveness – which are quite deliberate. Part of the problem that we have has to do with the question of whether Black people should be involved in visual arts, in creating aesthetically challenging visual work. The assumption when we foreground avant-garde technique is either that we don’t know anything else, and have stumbled across it by accident, or that we are imitating other forms.

LG: Or that we have no foundation in the Black communities, that we’ve left that behind too.

JA: The idea of prefacing the film with a phrase – “There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories” – and then to work on it in terms of splits and unevenesses and so on without trying to center it was what alarmed many people. The triumphalist vision of race and community operates on the assumption that there is essentially a core of affect that is structured around oratory, around song – giving it an irreducible unity – which wasn’t present in the film. It played with it, at some stages discards it, it takes it on board, then it says it’s probably not possible, do not work with it, but there you are, and so on. But the film doesn’t fix its sentiments around it. That is what was frightening. It then leads to the discussion of whether avant-garde techniques, or disruptive techniques, profilmic techniques, are in safe hands when they are given to Blacks. Both certain Black theorists and the white theorists would say that; they would want to know whether authorship is really safe with us.
If the notion of diaspora has any credibility, it has to be understood as a formation which exists both on the margins at certain points, and at the center of English social life. And if it plays those dual functions, then it’s bound to be negotiated into a series of practices, visual or otherwise, which exist in this country. So that even if a visual history wasn’t present in our “history,” the very fact of communality at the center of the metropol makes it impossible to ignore, to put it crudely, that every little Black kid in this country, at one stage or another, will have the chance to go to an art college, or to take part in art classes at school.

CF: And they live in a world that is absolutely innundated with images, although the vast majority of them do not include Black people. Would you want to venture into theorizing around what this absence does to the psyche, and the question of representation and race?

JA: In terms of reproduction in the very classical sense, Marxian or otherwise, of social relations in this country, I know that the Black independent sector, which has organized itself around questions of representation and collective practice, represents the new wave of English filmmaking. I also know that in terms of the kinds of questions raised by filmmaking practice in this country, which took its cue from Jean-Luc Godard, from Chris Marker, the Nouvelle Vague, political cinema in Russia and so on – this new wave comes to it with a certain kind of agnosticism and skepticism around its transgressive potential as we hit the 1990s. And I also know that our interest in filmmaking as a new wave possibly gives English independent film practice a chance to breach what has been an impossible gap between the mainstream and independents. We are obviously aided by the existence of television – nevertheless, we are the fortunate inheritors of that confusion, that growth, that progression. And I don’t think it is possible to be that closely associated with all those things without having some very deeply entrenched familiarity with the visual landscape in this country. That’s what I know. What I don’t know is how we then proceed. What I don’t know is what to say to people who say, well how can Black people be in that position.
One of the problems that the independent sector always faced in this country is this crisis of identity around collective security – it never really understood its strategic power. It never truly understood where it stood in relation to mainstream audiovisual culture in this country,. People always assumed that the very act of doing something is transgressive. In a culture where the transgressive is in fact the cutting edge of advertising, that makes your identity very unstable.

CF: How do you respond to the claim that while you get attacked for the forms you operate within, the fact that you choose to work within those forms makes it easier for your work to be aired on television, whereas a more straightforward, monological documentary on a politically controversial issue, like The People’s Account (12) cannot.

JA: On one level, we’ve had people wholve “told it like it is” in their documentaries. That has to be said with a certain element of skepticism, because ultimately one needs to challenge the assumption that you can tell it like it is.
Can we talk about where aesthetics used to belong in classical philosophy? The term “aesthetic” was coined by Baumgarten, who was an ally of Herder, who was working with Kant. Black filmmaking has and will probably continue to be straddled with what Kant calls the categorical imperative. People assume that there are certain transcendental duties that Black filmmaking has to perform. They assume that and because of that Black filmmaking has to work with the understanding that it’s in a state of emergence. And because it is in a state of emergence its means always have to be guerilla means, war means, signposts of urgency. When that begins to inhibit questions of reflection – doubt, skepticism, intimacy and so on – then the categorical imperative does exactly what it is supposed to do – it imprisons.

CF: It is precisely the arguments around urgency that foreclose entry into aesthetic practice, or any discussion of aesthetics as the property of a Black artist. How can you start to talk about a term that exists within aesthetics, when you’re supposedly not engaged in aesthetics?

JA: Because the transcendental duties are always a priori, because they are always there before you start. Everything else is only given contingent licence. Aesthetics, efficacy, are each given tentative license. Their only use is the extent to which they take you closer to your transcendental mission, which is to announce that we are here and we can’t take it anymore.
If the situation of war is an apt metaphor, and in many ways it probably is, then I would say that our position of dissidence is that one resolutely refuses to be turned into cannon fodder. We would like to take our bread and hit the mountain because it is safer to be a guerilla. The struggles we’ve engaged in have had some moderate successes. We’ve argued that we don’t just live beneath our navel.

CF: In what sense do you deal with sexuality and gender in your films?

JA: We’ve decided to deal with these questions in different ways. It’s a very complicated question for us. On the one hand we try to deal with it by working with Pratibha Parmar one her videotape Emergence (1987), trying to make an input into an area which is already defined as one of sexuality. On the other hand, we try to make sure that it gels into the mesh of concern that we have for the Black subject in our own work.
When Isaac Julien’s Territories (1985) appeared it was obvious that we were beginning to swap one set of transcendental clothes for another. Once you stop being angry you had to be another other, and adopt another transgressive tone. And we began to think of ways to slip past that. If there is a voice of dissidence that echoes and strains in our work, it’s an attempt to find a position from which to speak certain questions – which beguiles expectations and is genuinely uncanny in many ways. It was obvious that once Territories appeared, with the kind of reception that it got in this country – it was then supposed to be the beginning of a convention. Regardless of what one’s interest in the politics were. I don’t think, in the end, that we don’t deal with sexuality. But we try to find a much more complicated dialogue with the issues than was expected of us once Territories appeared.

AJ: The other thing is that we are not making sexuality a cornerstone. We are making it something that is mediated, not necessarily the central process. It’s informed by a number of different things.

LG: There are times when people prioritize sexuality as a singular issue, which is what tends to happen in moments of struggle or crisis. But after that -how do you then bring it back into an everyday part of your life, and then into a filmic practice? I find that far more difficult than addressing it head on. People don’t live like that.

JA: We are also in a position to take a number of things for granted. The search for intimacy, the reflective quality of Handsworth Songs, does not simply have to do with a reallignment of Black discourses. They have to do with our sensitivity to questions which are raised in other sorts of politics, not necessarily racial ones. Obviously, Black women talk about questions of femininity. We try to make sure that the text you operate with is open enough to allow for those kinds of interventions.
Two articles appeared in the London Review of Books a while back – I didn’t realize how informative they were until much later. It was a debate between Richard Sennett (13) and Michel Foucault. And it’s also a kind of debate that has taken place since then in the gay community.

CF: What were their positions?

JA: They had to do with whether or not when one forged a politics around identity, placing it in the public arena – whether doing that was simply allowing oneself to become inserted in a well policed arrangement of things. What does calling yourself a Black collective entail, or imply? Is it possible to work through identity politics without having to announce the name of your identity? I was left with a deep sense of skepticism around identifying identity and
championing it in a very triumphalist way.
Blacks are expected to be transgressive in English cultural life. To me this is just as wearying, just as draining as the old “you must be the conscience of the nation” approach. Either one of them requires a certain act of a kind of emancipatory front – for the nation. We don’t have the strength or the energy. So there may be reticence around these questions on our part.

CF: Africa has an extremely important symbolic function in the history of Black film and Black images – and in the Black consciousness movement – as the promised land – the age of innocence. With your new film, Testament (1988), which was shot in Africa, you seem to have walked into a rather overloaded symbolic minefield.

JA: It is loaded. In many ways, Africa is one of the key primal scenes, one of the primal moments in diasporic culture. I suspect that what we are going to do with that understanding isn’t going to please everybody, but there you are. That is the way of the world.

RA: Specific histories of subjectivities is not the issue. The issue is that within the Black community, there is a lot of innocence and naivete about the continent Africa. There is a certain kind of romantic engagement with Africa, which is one of the residues of the neonationalist moment. On one level, Africa should be celebrated; on another level, people in the diaspora should critically engage with the continent. And in particular they should engage with those historical figures who have supposedly ennunciated Africa, or the pan-Africanist movement. All those Africanist leaders are still held in a frame of innocence. What that has done is to project a certain kind of retardation in thought. It’s feeling and not thinking.
What we are saying now is that after 20-25 years of independence, no one can argue that the problem in Africa is something outside – that it’s the West, always the West. There are real problems that are internal, that are specific to the continent. In order to break away from this romantic engagement one has to recognize and smash that innocence and rip it up and see what is really taking place. Otherwise we are engaged in transcendental thinking about the continent, which doesn’t get those out here in the West thinking about the continent very far.

JA: Let’s speak about it also in terms of the aesthetics of that primal moment. If the dichotomy in Black art is between protest and redemption, or protest and affirmation, and if Africa as the primal scene functions significantly in the affirmation moment, as the moment of liberation, of catharsis, what if – and this is an aesthetic question we pose in the film – what if you have a character for whom that redemption is a problem? What if you have a character who can’t live with that primal moment? One of the things that the character says in the film is that perhaps I am a new kind of animal for whom the very thought of peace is a burden. We have a number of alternatives – we can debunk the lore, with reference to sociology, or we can take the rhetoric of the primal scene seriously and say that it does exist, and that it has real effects on people’s lives. There are people whose lives have been made much more complicated, destroyed almost, by these sorts of assumptions around Africa. That seems to me to be a starting point. We must go there and find a character for whom Africa is not a place of redemption, precisely because Africa thinks of itself that way. We have to come out with a character like that. That is the aim of the film. Once you decide that the primal scene is that borderline, which people cross in different ways – once you have defined it in those terms you get stuck on one side or the other. What I am not exactly sure about – it doesn’t worry me or anybody else herewhat we are not sure about is whether that person actually comes back or gets swallowed up by the border.

CF: Perhaps we should also talk about the U.S. as a place of redemption. Black American culture carries a tremendous amount of weight here in England. You touch on it in the film with references to Malcolm X and the dialogues and questions that are raised about a legacy of radicalism.

AJ: It has to do with what you hear on the news – that what happened in America ten years ago happens in Britain today. And I think that is because Black people have been there in much larger numbers much longer – and in a sense people still look to what Black Americans are doing. And it is also easier not to look at what is happening here.

JA: The connection goes back a long way. At each moment of Black radical life in this country there has been an interface with concerns around race in America. You can go back to the discussions around emancipation here. Black people who lived in this country at that time, their concerns with slavery here and in the Americas were always interlocked. The founding of the pan-Africanist conference was always only possible when in many ways the anticolonial fighters began to take W.E.B. Du Bois (14) seriously and work with him in some ways. Marcus Garvey went to America and then came here. There has always been a sense of exchange, if you like, between the two spaces. And there was that famous conference in this country in 1967 called “The Dialectics of Liberation”, where people were first exposed to the personages of Black Power – Stokely Carmichael turned up and made his famous speech in which he said that the only place for a woman is prone. This first symbolic contact with Black Power left a very contradictory legacy in this country.
1968 itself – the founding of the New Left in this country – was deeply implicated in a kind of dialogue and exchange with Black American culture.
Now if we are talking about our own fascination with America I suspect that it is split in very different ways – there is a kind of aura around American life in its different manifestations, which you find in different spaces. For Black women’s politics in this country, Black American women writers have almost canonical significance.

LG: There is a sense that they had all done it before we had done it.

JA: There is sense that Black American culture throws down a certain gauntlet which people then have to pick up and live through and with.

CF: What about in film?

JA: In film I don’t think the connection is there that much.

AJ: It also has to do with the Caribbean. Most of us come from the Caribbean, where America is it.

JA: Wim Wenders said that Americans have colonized our unconscious. In many ways he is right. Anywhere in the world – in the darkest part of Manchester even -y ou find counter-culture which premises American life in some form, be it hip hop, or whatever. And it is in that very generalized sense that America has been useful. But I don’t think I ever really seriously thought that Black American independent filmmaking was something to take
a cue from.
RA: I think we have been more interested in the New Latin American Cinema, the so-called Third Cinema.

1. Originally from Kingston, Jamaica, Stuart Hall is one of the founders of Black cultural studies in Britain and one of the leading spokesmen of the New Left. He was the first editor of New Left Review and assisted in organizing the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCS) at the University of Birmingham. He is currently professor of Sociology at Open University. He is coeditor of many CCS volumes, such as Culture, Media, Language, and coauthor of Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and law and order.
2. Paul Gilroy is senior lecturer in in Sociology at the Polytechnic of the South Bank. He has also worked as a musicianf disc jockey and journalist. He is coeditor of The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in ’70s Britain, and the author of There Ain’t No Black in the Union lack: The Cultural
Politics of Race and Nation
3. The reference here is to the writings of the French theorist Michel Foucault, whose books include Madness and Civilization, The Order of Things, The Archeology of Knowledge, Discipline and Punish, The History of Sexuality, and The Uses of Pleasure.
4. Franz Fanon was born in Martinique, studied psychiatry in France and worked in Algeria during the Franco-algerian War. He is the author of Black Skin, White Masks, The Wretched of the Earth, and A Dying Colonialism.
5. One of the leading Marxist philosophers of the 1960s in France, Louis Althusser is the author of For Marx and Reading Capital. Known for having emphasized the implications of Marxism for philosophy and aesthetics, Althusser developed a concept of ideology as a “lived” relation between human beings and their world. He saw this as different from science in its giving more weight to the social and practical modes of understanding, rather than theoretical forms of knowledge. He employed Freudian terms such as condensation, displacement and overdetermination to explain how contradiction – the dialectical process of historical development – can be understood in relation to its time and place in history.
6. Antonio Gramsci, the most important Italian Marxist theorist of the early twentieth century, is the author of The Prison Notebooks. He is best known in England for his theory of hegemony and the concept of national-popular politics, which provides the groundwork for understanding cultural and ideological production and reception and for analyzing the politics of the modern nation-state as effective through consent, rather than force. Like Althusser, Gramsci also employed categories from Freudian psychoanalysis.
7. Block is a British art magazine.
8. Victor Burgin is a British photographer and theorist and the editor of Thinking Photography (London: MacMillan, 1982).
9. Alexander Rodchenko, the Russian constructivist artist and photographer of the early revolutionary period.
10. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer and photojournalist.
11. See here for Salman Rushdie’s article, “Songs doesn’t know the score,” from The Guardian (London), January 12, 1987, p. 10.
12. Another Black workshops in England, Ceddo, produced a documentary about racially motivated riots, entitled The People’s Account (1986). It was commissioned by Channel 4, but has not yet been aired, due to an unresolved conflict involving Channel 4 and the Independent Broadcasting Authority (1BA). The IBA found the original version of the documentary unacceptable for its accusations against the British state, even after Channel 4 lawyers had submitted requests for minor changes and had them attended to.
13. Richard Sennett is the author of The Fall of Public Man and Authority.
14. Poet and essayist W.E.B. Du Bois is one of the greatest and most influential Black American writers of the late 19th and early 20th century. He is the author of The Souls of Black Folk (1903).

DISSENT ! John Akomfrah


20 November 2013 20:30, Cinematek Brussels. In collaboration with le P’tit Ciné.
Talk with John Akomfrah proceeded by a screening of Handsworth Songs.

Black Audio Film Collective, Handsworth Songs

1986, 16mm, color & b/w, English spoken, French subtitles, 60′

“People assume that there are certain transcendental duties that Black filmmaking has to perform. They assume that and because of that Black filmmaking has to work with the understanding that it’s in a state of emergence. And because it is in a state of emergence its means always have to be guerilla means, war means, signposts of urgency. When that begins to inhibit questions of reflection- doubt, skepticism, intimacy and so on- then the categorical imperative does exactly what it is supposed to do- it imprisons.”
– John Akomfrah

“There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories”. The phrase lingers over the film like a haunting refrain, reverberating across and between the ghostly traces of lived moments floating over the surface of the screen, somewhere between faded history and tainted memory, between the historical and the allegorical. Handsworth Songs was the first film John Akomfrah made with the Black Audio Film Collective, a group of artists, critics and filmmakers who set out to intervene in the cultural debate about black identity and representation that was raging all over Britain in the 1980’s. The spark that lit the fire was arguably the “civil disorder“ of 1981, when a wave of violent unrest swept through some of England’s inner cities. It was this event that painfully exposed the gap between the dominant discourses on ethnicity and “Britishness” and what was intimately felt and experienced by the “bastard children of 1968”, those who were profoundly shaped by what Derek Walcott called “the absence of ruins”. The challenge then, became one of generating counter-narratives, to look for aesthetical forms which would allow for a space to deconstruct the hegemonic voices and articulate states of belonging and displacement in dissensual ways. The question of form turned out to be one of dealing with absence: the lack of “ruins” made it necessary to look into the dark mirror of the past in search of images, words and sounds to attest to the intangible presence of diasporic histories. In Handsworth Songs, a response to the second Handsworth riots in 1985, Akomfrah discards the didactic panoptic impulse of the documentary film tradition in favor of a polytonic structure in which eye-witness accounts, mediated voice-overs and a mosaic of sounds intersperse with a poetic montage of archival footage. It is here, in unearthing the phantom narratives of the past to give them a new place in the present as a promise to the future, that can be found the essence of john Akomfrah’s work, up until this day.

DISSENT ! is an initiative of Argos, Auguste Orts and Courtisane, in the framework of the research project “Figures of Dissent” (KASK/Hogent), with support of VG & VGC.

On 21 November John Akomfrah will also be presenting his film Testament at KASKcinema, Gent.

The visit of John Akomfrah has been made possible with the support of Brussels Arts Platform and VUB Doctoral School of Human Sciences.

How can the relation between cinema and politics be thought today? Between a cinema of politics and a politics of cinema, between politics as subject and as practice, between form and content? From Vertov’s cinematographic communism to the Dardenne brothers’ social realism, from Straub-Huillet’s Brechtian dialectics to the aesthetic-emancipatory figures of Pedro Costa, from Guy Debord’s radical anti-cinema to the mainstream pamphlets of Oliver Stone, the quest for cinematographic representations of political resistance has taken many different forms and strategies over the course of a century. The multiple choices and pathways that have gradually been adopted, constantly clash with the relationship between theory and practice, representation and action, awareness and mobilization, experience and change. Is cinema today regaining some of its old forces and promises? Are we once again confronted with the questions that Serge Daney asked a few decades ago? As the French film critic wrote: “How can political statements be presented cinematographically? And how can they be made positive?”. These issues are central in a series of conversations in which contemporary perspectives on the relationship between cinema and politics are explored.

A tale of disappointment and struggle


“Il faudrait plutôt comprendre la totalité de ce qui s’est fait ; ce qui reste à faire. Et non ajouter d’autres ruines au vieux monde du spectacle et des souvenirs.”
– Guy Debord, Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps

”The dream is over”, a voice tells us at the end of Chris Marker’s Le fond de l’air est rouge. Just a few years after the explosion of May 1968, all leftist resolve seemed to have withered away: in France, Chili, Portugal and elsewhere the revolutionary movements fizzled to rupture and defeat, in Italy and Germany the hopes of the radical left collapsed into violence and despair, in China the Cultural Revolution turned out to be a cruel failure leading to famine and chaos. And so mourning began: mourning for failed hopes, mourning for possibilities that turned in on themselves, mourning for a sense of togetherness that somehow collapsed into contorted factionalism. A mourning without end. Soon enough the energies of militant histories were overturned by some of those who had once fully embraced them: all the “children of Marx and Coca-cola” and their actions had accomplished, so they argued, was to pave the way for a rekindled capitalism, allowing our societies to become free aggregations of unbound molecules, whirling in the void, deprived of any affiliation, completely at the mercy of the law of Capital. All resistance was said to be futile, even suspect, in any case causing more harm than good: revolt could hardly change the world, it could only give rise to cruelty and catastrophe. History was identified as an enormous catastrophic ruin, continuously piling wreckage upon wreckage: the memory of the Gulag dissolved all memories of revolution, just like the memory of the Shoah gradually replaced the remembrance of antifascism. In claiming, as Alain Badiou puts it, to have “delivered us from the ‘fatal abstractions’ inspired by the “ideologies of the past'”, Western capitalism, and its political system, democratic parliamentarianism, presented themselves as a universal shield protecting us from all forms of terror and totalitarianism. “Capitalism won the battle, if not the war”, the voice says, “but in a paradoxical logic some of the staunchest opponents of Soviet totalitarianism, these men of the new Left fell into the same whirlwind.” The whirlwind continued to swirl after the fall of the Berlin wall, when the “end of utopias” signaled the retreat of social-democratic politics, the disintegration of the Soviet system and the abandonment of emancipatory movements all over the globe. And so we witnessed the arrival of “capitalist realism”: capitalism now being the only game in town, one that could hardly be called “perfect”, but could at least guarantee public freedom, free market and free choice. We begrudgingly came to admit that recuperation is the fate of all forms of revolutionary thinking: to oppose is merely to consolidate – after all, as Slavoj Žižek has provocatively pointed out, anti-capitalism is widely disseminated in capitalism itself. Rather than evolving towards a revolution that would take us beyond it – which was of course the basic assumption of Marxist thought – it was made clear for all of us that capitalism just capitalizes – it simply produces more capitalism. In the years that followed, more and more moralizing discourses trumpeted a new disaster: the excess of democratic mass individualism, resulting in an infinite drift of narcissistic consumers who care for anything else but the instant satisfaction of their own needs and desires. The same criticism that used to denounce the mythology of consumer ideologies in view of possible change started to turn on itself, trapping itself in an endless vicious circle in which the power of the market could no longer be distinguished from the power of its denunciation.

At the same time as the leftist era crumbled under the weight of historical fatality, a certain utopia of cinema was also believed to have come to an end. Serge Daney once claimed that Pasolini’s death in november 1975 marked the moment when cinema stopped playing the role of “sorcerer’s apprentice” and became a consensual landscape rather than the space for division and confrontation that it used to be. The re-politicization of cinema, whether in content or in form, associated with the upheavals and the hopes of the 1960’s and 1970’s, gave way to a general feeling of disillusionment and powerlessness. Just like the failure of the October revolution accompanied the end of the utopia of cinema as a mystical marriage between art and science, poetics and community, the implosion of the leftist dreams accompanied the dissolution of the idea of cinema as realm of discord or weapon in struggle. What was left was nothing but lost illusions, utopias gone wrong, ruins amidst the ruins. After the deluge, with the disappearance of the material reality of the struggles and the horizon that gave them meaning, the existing forms of “political” cinema could no longer be sustained. In the hour of the shortest shadow, the same procedures that previously claimed to criticize the mechanisms of injustice and exploitation by laying bare the reality beneath the surface (driven by a “passion for the real”, as Badiou would have it), were now used to interrogate this form of criticism itself. In this “cinema of between” (between one image and another, visual and sound, signified and signifier, active and passive, filming and being filmed), the question was no longer what there was to see behind the image, but rather how to find a way in, in order to create fissures and escape the endless chain of images. “The background in any image is always another image”, Jean-Luc Godard stated. Cinema became a vessel to move from one surface to another, a guiding tour demonstrating what it means to see, to hear and to think, a hall of mirrors where the spectator could catch his own gaze. But the same “radical regressism” that aimed to chirurgically deconstruct the various elements of cinematic production and reception also rendered them compatible with what Daney called, in the beginning of the 1990’s, the “infinite games of the media”. What was meant to disrupt the circulation of images, was annexed by that same circulation: “deduction, autonomization, division, humor”, once the main tools of critical cinema, had become the “catch phrases of the current landscape”. In line with the thinking en vogue at the time, Daney set forward a landscape of mass individualism where images could no longer “show” but only “signal” emotions and experiences that had already been produced elsewhere. “Images are no longer on the side of the dialectical truth of “seeing” and “showing”; they have entirely moved over to the side of promotion and advertising, which is to say the side of power.” Increasingly, wrote Daney, images only refer to themselves and no longer to anything “other”. For Jean Baudrillard, this loss of referent meant that appearance and truth could only be one and the same: ultimately every reality vanishes into image, lost amidst a potlatch of signs. In the end the critical tradition that called for an unveiling of the reality behind the surface slowly morphed into the idea that everything is surface, where, as Jacques Rancière writes, “all things are equivalent, where everything is equivalent with its image, and every image with its own lie”. The dogmatism of the hidden truth became the nihilism of the ubiquitous lie of the market: every attempt of resistance could only be recuperated as spectacle, inevitably accomplice to the reign of mass consumption.

“But we can not continue much longer on the way of desillusion”, wrote Daney towards the end of his life. Despite his growing disenchantment with the dissolution of the cinema he had cared for so much, the ciné-fils still put his wager on optimism. “Between the spectacle and the lack of images, is there a place for an ‘art of living with images’, at the same time demanding them to be ‘humanly’ comprehensive (so to know better what they are, who makes them and how, what they can do, how they retroact on the world) and keep at their core this remnant that is inhuman, startling, ambiguous, on the verge?” With Daney, we can ask: how can we regain a renewed trust in the power of the image? How can we get out of the fatalistic skepticism that the critical tradition has bestowed on us? It is clear to us now that the believe in the causal relation between affection, understanding and action that once provided the basic foundation for “political” cinema is no longer valid: the lack of any horizon of change has made sure of that. It has also become increasingly clear that the overwhelming feelings of disorientation and disappointment, the sense of something lacking or failing arising from the realization that we inhabit a violently unjust world, all too easily sweep us away into the never-ending depths of fear and nihilism. Now that cinema, being unsure of its own politics, is once again encouraged to intervene because of the absence of proper politics, the question is then how it can generate a new power of affirmation, one that is in line with the interruption of the logic of resignation evidenced by recent uprisings, one that breaks with the “febrile sterility” of the contemporary world. In a time when capitalism has colonized most of our dream life, can cinema once again become a laboratory of distant dreams, invigorating a new sense of the impossible, something to hold on to, hold on dearly? How can the defaitist melancholy of the left, which has been feeding on its own reflexive impotence for so long now, be toppled over into a re-enchantment of worlds other than the one we are experiencing today, one that is shivering from cruel injustices, growing inequalities, intolerance, insecurity, complacency, corruption, to the point of exhaustion? One thing is for sure: we cannot revert to the old refrains that we got stuck in: we are done with the idea of spectacle, we are done with the sorrow of lost illusions. We can no longer resign ourselves to ongoing disorientation as a choice of lesser evil: if – when – we decide to chase a spark of hope in the past, let’s do so in order to look for the very principles capable of remedying its impasses. When we decide to work our way towards the future, let’s do so in order to break with the pervasive monotony of the present, to rehabilitate the idea of change from its predicament as structural stagnation. Perhaps, as Badiou argues, we do need a new kind of heroism: surely not one that can be identified with the omnipresent figure of the individual warrior in the throes of destiny, or the bruised spirit stepping towards grace out of the shadow of damnation, but one assuming new symbolic forms for collective action. And perhaps this is one of the frames in which the possibilities of cinema can be thought of today: as the invention of a sensible tissue that can contribute to the constitution of a new communal trust, a sense of sharing that exceeds the limits of our social and vital determinations, leading the way to a recovery of agency and imagination. It is time for us to start exploring new countries, to put our trust in invented worlds that are not down on any map (true places never are). One of them could be “a supplementary country, called cinema.”

(image: Sylvain George, Vers Madrid (The Burning Bright)!)