Negotiating the boundaries between cinematography and art, ARTHUR JAFA wants to make black film with the same power, beauty and alienation as black music—seeing the rule as something not to be followed, but rather continually undone and reforged.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Nathanael Turner
In winter 2018, I had the good fortune of crossing paths with Arthur Jafa in Berlin as he installed the second iteration of his exhibition “A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions” at the Julia Stoschek Collection. He was working on a new video—not for this show, he noted. He showed me some of it, and we chatted a bit about the work, about recent works, and about that great work Love is the Message, the Message is Death (2016), which balloons in any wide-shot of his career so far and has (for better or for worse) become his calling card. Running at just over seven minutes, Love is the Message is a video collage or supercut of archival and viral footage of black people vibrating along various emotional frequencies, all set to Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam.” The work wows audiences wherever it is shown, first appearing unofficially at Art Basel in 2016, then formally presented at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise (New York). The video has since shown around the world, from MOCA Los Angeles to Serpentine (London). Arguably, Jafa has made the biggest global splash of any American artist in the last two years.
There are many things that I like about Arthur Jafa, and one of them is his desire to keep things moving. He’s not about to settle into a single perspective, with the exception of his oft-cited mantra: “I want to make black cinema with the power, beauty and alienation of black music.” While direct, the statement itself carries a feint. The power, beauty, and alienation of black music is all wrapped up in its mutability. Black music has what Fred Moten names a “jurisgenerative” tendency. It’s this relationship to the rule as something not to be followed, but rather to be continually forged, undone, and reforged, that undergirds black music, from the blues and jazz to hip-hop and house—an approach also known as improvisation. It is this logic that in turn keeps the beat of black life at large. Inheritor and scholar of this jurisgenerative tendency, Jafa’s brain is ready to bend toward a new magnet whenever necessary. The work embodies this, with Love is the Message expertly pairing the joy and the horror of black history, culture and being. The emotions brought forth by the video are a perverse mixture of triumph and pain, not presented alternately—triumph, pain, triumph, pain—but rather presented as one. For a few seconds at a time, Jafa pins down this nasty, sublime combination that leaves a ringing in your ears, and then he’s onto the next. His archival notebooks function the same way. Exhibited at the Hammer Museum as part of the 2016 Made in L.A. Biennial, his pages and pages of collected historical, pop culture and art images give you a sense of just how quickly he’s moving.
After leaving Berlin, I thought about our conversation a lot, wondering how I could articulate to myself what the fuck he’s up to. All the search terms feel inadequate: “black experience,” “archive,” “police violence,” “world star hip hop.” Reading his videos as documentary accounts of “the black experience,” as some have done, misses the real work: that space between the audience and the screen, between audience members themselves. The work is social and relational, undoubtedly. It doesn’t play the game of “black life” show-and-tell as the art world asks for it to be served. Nah, the shit is elemental. But what does it coalesce into?
So I’ve devised a riddle. Maybe that’s the wrong word—it could be a puzzle, or a word game, or a map. A dance? An anagram? Anyway, here’s the list I made on the plane back to the U.S. of the things about which Arthur Jafa cares:
The Black Experience of Cinema.
The Experience of Black Cinema.
The Cinema of Black Experience.
(What IS experience exactly?)
Arthur Jafa makes videos, images and films for black people. Everyone else is caught in the crosshairs. We might at first have the urge to call this a “refusal,” before realizing that it’s more like nodding politely, making compulsory small talk before making a beeline for an old friend. White people are left to eavesdrop at the door, while Jafa and his black audience investigate and tinker with the black experience of cinema.
Historically, the black experience of cinema is one of being sold short and short-sold. This is an old story, but an important one. Maybe it is the story. Black people and black life are under-, over-, and mis-represented on the big screen (yes, all at once) and always have been. We see too much of ourselves as others see us, or we don’t see ourselves at all, unless we take it upon ourselves to make the images. And so the black experience of cinema is all tangled up in want and desire. We always have a sense of that simultaneous lack and excess. In response to this desire, the black experience of cinema’s historical arc has taken on a funny shape, screaming “Pedagogy!!!!!” as it tunnels, leaving a slime of “positivity” and “authenticity” behind it. For the last century—we’re coming up on the centennial of Oscar Micheaux’s The Homesteader (1919)—we’ve been trying to get it right.
Jafa assumes a place in the genealogy of black artists and filmmakers working to restore integrity to the depiction of black life onscreen. His work in this vein long predates his art world coming-out with Love is the Message, which was not so much an entrance as it was a return. Jafa was in the 1993 Whitney Biennial before leaving the art world for the film industry. For the decades following, he imaged the lives of black people primarily as a cinematographer, shooting Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) and Spike Lee’s Crooklyn (1994), among other films. Jafa contributed a look to both films that supports their particularly confident and unflinching building-out of a very black world for their characters. Jafa makes a similar effort in his own directorial pursuits. He works to right that wrong that is wrapped up in other wrongs—wrongs that originate with the transatlantic slave trade; wrongs that originate with aesthetic modernism’s birth out of the European encounter with the African Other. Jafa rights that wrong, putting black people at the center, but he also undermines our traditional understanding of which wrong it is that needs to be righted. Is it really the lack of positive images? Or is it the veil of the screen itself, the camera’s very ability to frame in the first place, that needs examining?
The Experience of Black Cinema. Jafa packs so much—literally, so many clips—into works like Love is the Message and Apex (2013) that “black life” becomes so voluminous that the viewer can never become attached to one thing, one image. The “representation” paradigm peels away as Jafa reaches light speed. He takes the concerns of his predecessors—how to tell a black story—and adds, How do we put blackness itself on the screen? For Jafa, there’s an inclusive cinema aimed at black people. And then there’s black cinema.
Jafa’s black cinema is structuralist and technical. Its gravitational center is that mantra I noted earlier, posed here as a question: How can we make “a black cinema with the power, beauty and alienation of black music?” Jafa has developed a network of theories and techniques to this end, some made public, others kept close to his chest. One, for instance, is an editing technique that he calls Black Visual Intonation (BVI), "the use of irregular, non-tempered (non-metronomic) camera rates and frame replication to prompt filmic movement to function in a manner that approximates Black vocal intonation.” BVI and other Jafa trade secrets aim to create a black feeling rather than simply show black stuff.
Though they have their fair share of intellectual differences, Jafa’s black cinematic practices fall into line with the thinking of poet and theorist Fred Moten, in that each makes a philosophical and practical distinction between black people and blackness itself. Jafa’s practice actualizes blackness’s materiality in the universe vis-à-vis Moten; furthermore, Jafa actualizes blackness’ materiality in a filmic, cinematic sense. His project melts down and reshapes the aims of mid-century structuralist/materialist filmmakers and forges it anew: a black (non-)structuralist-(im)materialism. Defining materialist film, Peter Gidal once wrote: “The structuring aspects and the attempt to decipher the structure and anticipate/recorrect it, to clarify and analyze the production process of the specific image at any specific moment, are the root concern of structural/materialist film.” Following Gidal, Jafa exemplifies some detourned materialism; it’s not quite the materialism of the film that Jafa is interested in, although the film is his material. It’s the other shadowy thing, the other play of light and dark: blackness. What structure is born when it collides with cinema?
This major collision is something that we could call “the cinema of black experience,” and Arthur Jafa is the principal investigator into this phenomenon. The black experience is itself a cinematic one, on all fronts: ontological, phenomenological, epistemological. This is not to say that the black experience looks good onscreen, and that Jafa puts it there. Instead, “the cinema of black experience” means that there is a cinematic quality endemic to blackness and black life on multiple fronts, which gives it its structural potential when it comes to the moving image. Blackness is entangled with cinema and media at large at its most basic ontological level; the big and silver screens are where American images of black life have been crafted and circulated since the dawn of cinema. We also can view the funky phenomenology of black double-consciousness as cinematic in its effects, splitting ones black self between first-person POV and an eternal establishing shot. Furthermore, theorist Kara Keeling writes that, “the images [of blackness and black life] in current circulation condition the black imago, and hence the black himself.” The images of blackness circulated on screen have massive epistemological and pedagogical implications for black viewers. They also shoulder the weight of (often inadvertently) teaching white people what blackness is, what black people are like, and so on.
This idea of the cinema of black experience, or of Jafa’s black cinema, poses that blackness’ inhabitation of the screen is crucial. This saying, “representation matters,” that we hear so often—why? What’s at stake? It’s more than just black folks wanting to have a nice time at the theater, or to see people who look like us make money at the movies. The fight is a fundamental one. It is existential, if we can call anything related to black people by such a name. There’s this implicit knowledge that the screen is a battlefield—maybe not the final one, but it’s like returning to where it all began.
Arthur Jafa knows that a radical black cinema has to do more than present alternative narratives. He knows that blackness is an impure substance and mediated image, and that providing a more “real” image of black life will never be enough. More importantly, he understands that there will never be a “real” image of black life that is “real” to every black person the world over. What he poses is that one has to stick their hands in the gears of the machine and remake its mechanisms. Where Gidal and other materialist filmmakers leave us with film stripped down to its bare mechanics, Jafa surveys it, strips it for parts and replaces its ruins with fresh, black parts. Linear time? I don’t know her.