b.O.s. 1.3 / Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death / Huey Copeland

Left, from Trajal Harrell’s The Return of La Argentina. Courtesy of the artist. Center, from Lisa Jarrett’s How Many Licks? II (Conditioned No. 13,763), (2017). Courtesy of the artist. Right,  still from Love is the Message, The Message is Death, (2016). Courtesy Arthur Jafa and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome. 

Black One Shot is a series that stages brevity and precision in response to a single work of black art, contemporary and/or prescient. Using a 1000-word conceit, it references the pressures on scholars and curators to present complex discussions and formulations of blackness for public consumption, political action, and academic relevance. It disputes staid frameworks of interpretation that cannot or will not account for the speculative, ambivalent, and irreconcilable ways of black forms. It speaks to the ongoing case for black lives and art mattering. And it conjures up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object.

As an assembly of strategies, impulses, and circuits, these pieces conduct an historiographic and aesthetic review of how blackness and the arts demand and distend. We circulate them as a new measure of art criticism, one keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness, pleasure, and critical contemplation. Black visual and expressive culture and all to which it is connected is better for these queries.

With 30+ contributors, b.O.s. will run the course of summertime, when the living is (un)easy. We invite you to follow and share as new work is issued every two weeks. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J.

This first transmission (6.4.18) features Amber Musser on Trajal Harrell’s The Return of La Argentina, Faye Gleisser on Lisa Jarrett’s How Many Licks? II (Conditioned #13,763), and Huey Copeland on Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, The Message is Death.

– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)

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Arthur Jafa’s 7½-minute digital video has, since its creation, been met with rapt responses from critics, institutions, and collectors on both sides of the Atlantic.1 It is not difficult to see why. With a soundtrack powered by Kanye West’s neo-gospel anthem “Ultralight Beam” (2016) and a propulsive visual logic, in which variegated scenes of black life that Jafa shot or appropriated rapidly cut into one another, the work holds out a highly affecting exploration of the specular means and political meaning of black appearance today.2

Consider the video’s conjoining of Louis Farrakhan calling out “Mr. [Mike] Wallace” on 60 Minutes with a clip of the other Mr. [Chris, “Notorious B.I.G.”] Wallace rapping on a corner, a punning crosswire, a “sidelong glance,” that, in less than 10 seconds, both cites and performs black men’s rhetorical savvy in our encounters with the spectacle [Fig. 1].3 What I hope to offer here is an approach to the tensions that animate the video; an accounting of Jafa’s work on the signifier that stays in- and out-of-step with his own descriptions of it; and a provisional emplotment of LMMD in relation to the black feminist critiques that it engages, contests, and extends into the contemporary imagistic field.4

Fig. 1. Stills from Love is the Message, The Message is Death, (2016). Courtesy Arthur Jafa and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome. 

Jafa’s practice has rightly been positioned in relationship to independent filmmaking, given his cinematographic background, as well as to black music, given its abiding importance as a model for his aesthetic ambitions.5 However, his recent works across platforms, including LMMD, resonate equally well with the ethical postures and tactical procedures of his generational cohorts Renée Green, Lorna Simpson, and Carrie Mae Weems.6 Like their interventions, Jafa’s works can be understood as forms of anti-portraiture that qualify the stilled representation of black figures in order to illuminate the dialectical relation between the self and the social.7

Whereas his fellow conceptualists usually recruit text and sound in recasting the black image, Jafa has developed critical modes of cutting and coverage that alter moving image sequences themselves as well as their internal relationships to each other. For one, the brevity of the clips mobilized in LMMD means that it holds out only fleeting depictions of individual subjects, as if to hedge against the visual capture of black folks, while throwing light—and shade—on viewers’ implication in the digital ecologies through which those images circulate and dis/appear. As the artist himself notes, the found material featured in LMMD is available “everywhere” online if we care enough to attend to it, though even this sense of visual availability is qualified by Jafa’s incorporation of his own beautifully shot footage of friends and family.8

This blending of the public and the personal, the lo-fi and the hi-res, speaks to the video’s simultaneous participation in and disruption of the contemporary ecology of the “poor image.” Such visually degraded pictures and clips, traded ceaselessly online, allow opportunities for popular and artistic appropriation, collaboration, and remixing, possibilities enabled by the modes of informational flow on which both conceptual art and neoliberal capitalism have come to rely, which “thriv[e] on compressed attention spans, on impression rather than immersion, on intensity rather than contemplation, on previews rather than screenings.”9

As an editioned artwork comprised, in part, of freely circulating material, LMMD exemplifies the contradictions inherent in working through black art’s intersections with digital image ecologies even as it works against an age-old logic that devalues black lives for the sake of cultural commodities. These tensions come into sharper focus in light of Jafa’s meticulous editing process, which underlines the slow time required to deeply engage such a rapid-fire work.10

Fig. 2. Still from Love is the Message, The Message is Death, (2016). Courtesy Arthur Jafa and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome. 

Compare, on this score, Jafa’s critical queering of a Jack Mizrahi drag “rumble” with its source footage [Fig. 2].11 Both sequences highlight one of the two competitors, a queen in a hot pink wig and patent leather gear who balletically spins away from the audience as she descends into a death drop. Jafa slows down this tour-de-force performance, interrupting the metronomic rhythm of the filmic apparatus, to accentuate the queen’s virtuosic bodily control. In the black-and-white sequence of an earlier vintage that immediately follows, an African American woman falls out, creating a formal link between queens that blurs distinctions between performative contexts in embracing the animative spirit of black culture.12

Such linkages begin to account for the work’s tremendous emotional power, which the degradation of poor image sequences serves to amplify, suggesting the ways that affective investment can both compensate for a lack of resolution and produce “visual bonds” among differing audiences.13 For more than one African American viewer of the work, myself included, LMMD activates the transitive energic ties, the shared sense of corporeal connection and vulnerability that has shaped black life since the advent of transatlantic slavery.14 Yet what is striking about Jafa’s video is that those moments of intense feeling—tears and shudders, gasps and Amens—are not necessarily tied to images of violence, but may be occasioned by a brief glimpse of theorist Hortense Spillers as she floats by the camera’s lens [Fig. 3].

Fig. 3. Still from Love is the Message, The Message is Death (Hortense Spillers), (2016). Courtesy Arthur Jafa and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome.

This fact speaks to the work’s production of and through gatherings of black sociality: West’s track was, from the beginning, a highly collaborative affair, and LMMD was executed under the banner of TNEG, a production company founded with Elissa Blount Moorhead and Malik Sayeed.15 The video, in fact, stems from Jafa’s processing of outtakes from his earlier experimental documentary Dreams Are Colder than Death (2014), which features a number of his interlocutors, Spillers among them, exploring how it is possible to love blackness.16 Jafa sees himself as an “emanation” of this cultural imperative and in describing LMMD he has recalled the formative impact of his godmother’s work as a church usher, whose role was to point out those possessed by the spirit.17 Ultimately, regardless of who takes it up for whatever ends, LMMD aims to carry on that work, “tending-toward-blackness” in all of its multiplicity and asking that we tend to the lives that it touches every time we fall into the video’s embrace or rise up from its thrall.18

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Thanks to Sam Aranke, Janet Dees, Adrienne Edwards, Michael Gillespie, Saidiya Hartman, and Krista Thompson for sharing their thoughts with me about this work and to Emily Bates and Arthur Jafa for their generously given work and engagement.

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This is one of three essays from the first transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

The Return of La Argentina / Amber Jamilla Musser

How Many Licks? II (Conditioned No. 13,763) / Faye Gleisser

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About the editors: 

Michael Boyce Gillespie is Associate Professor of Film at The City College of New York, CUNY. He has published on film theory, black visual and expressive culture, and contemporary art. Recent work includes co-editing (w/ Racquel Gates) the “Dimensions in Black: Perspectives on Black Film and Media” dossier for Film Quarterly 71.2 (Winter 2017). He is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). He is currently working on his next book tentatively titled Death Grips: Film Blackness and Cinema in the Wake. He would rather live in Oakland than Wakanda.

Lisa Uddin is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies and Paul Garrett Fellow at Whitman College. She has published widely on race, space, and human/nonhuman entanglements in modern and contemporary visual culture, and is the author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Her current book project, Sunspots: Black Cosmologies of California Design, considers black expressive practices in formations of California architecture and urbanism since the 1960s. She is mid-tone beige.

Endnotes

  1. For a detailed written accounting of the work’s emergence see Nate Freeman, “The Messenger: How a Video by Arthur Jafa Became a Worldwide Sensation—And Described America to Itself,” Art News, 27 March 2018: http://www.artnews.com/2018/03/27/icons-arthur-jafa/ (last accessed 21 May 2018).
  2. As hardly needs saying, LMMD could hardly be timelier: it arrives on the world stage in the wake of Donald Trump’s racially polarizing election and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. To hear most critics tell it, the video’s value derives from its unflinching illustration of the agonies and ecstasies of black existence in the long twentieth century, providing a seemingly exhaustive archive of African American icons and individuals, fantasies and nightmares. These critical voices take their bearing both from Jafa’s cues and from the work’s juxtapositions of clips depicting black bodies falling to premeditated police violence with those of black performers spontaneously rising up in the context of social gatherings. Such sequences powerfully testify that, in the words of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, “contact improvisation is how [black folks] survive genocide,” just as the rhythm of the work as a whole riffs on what Jafa calls “the tempo of emergency” that has long characterized black life in the United States.  However, to reduce the video to an unmediated illustration of African American suffering and survival for mainstream consumption is to overdetermine the work based on a few explicit found footage sequences, when LMMD, in fact, depicts black subjects’ navigation of the afterlife of slavery in moments that span the emotional register—from laughter to refusal to quiet contemplation—and that underline the multiple valences of the artist’s black signifyin’ practice. For emblematic critical responses to the work, including the artist’s own, see: Danny King, “Arthur Jafa Distilled the Black American Experience Into a High Art Music Video” The Village Voice, 27 December 2016: https://www.villagevoice.com/2016/12/27/arthur-jafa-distilled-the-black-american-experience-into-a-high-art-music-video/ (last accessed 1 June 2018); Roberta Smith, “What to See in New York City Galleries This Week,” New York Times, 24 November 2016: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/24/arts/design/what-to-see-in-new-york-city-galleries-this-week.html (last accessed 21 May 2018); and Arthur Jafa, as quoted in Ann Hornaday, “Filmmaker Arthur Jafa Makes His Hirshhorn Debut with a Stunning Video Installation,” Washington Post, 15 November 2017: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/filmmaker-arthur-jafa-makes-his-hirshhorn-debut-with-a-stunning-video-installation/2017/11/15/77337900-ca0f-11e7-8321-481fd63f174d_story.html (last accessed 21 May 2018). For a particularly telling response—“The young guy at the desk [of the MCA Denver], who happened to be, like us, white, glanced down at our group [the critic accompanied by children] and offered me a caveat: ‘You might want to watch the video in the basement on your own first before deciding on whether or not to let your kids see it.’ ‘Oh?’ I said, ‘Why? Sex? Violence?’ ‘Well,’ he responded awkwardly, ‘it’s about black life, so…’”—see Julie Carr, “Who Decides What Is Violent in the Museum,” Hyperallergic 10 May 2018: https://hyperallergic.com/441854/who-decides-what-is-violent-in-the-museum/ (last accessed 2 June 2018). For the critical frameworks to which I turn above, see: Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, “Michael Brown,” boundary 2 42.4 (2015): 87; “Arthur Jafa in Conversation with Hans Charles,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7Qmy6wtEOo (last accessed 21 May 2018); Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and  Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
  3. For an elaboration of the sidelong glance as a critical black feminist practice, see Kara Walker’s comments in Jerry Saltz, “Kara Walker: Ill-Will and Desire,” Flash Art 191 (November-December 1996): 82, as well as Krista Thompson, “A Sidelong Glance: The Practice of African Diaspora Art History,” Art Journal 70.3 (Fall 2011): 26.
  4. The approach outlined here pays heed to Rosalind Krauss’s call to “honor” artists’ work on the signifier in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Silvia Kolbowski, Miwon Kwon, and Benjamin Buchloh, “The Politics of the Signifier: A Conversation on the Whitney Biennial,” October 66 (Autumn 1993): 21; and Emma Chubb’s method in “In Step and Out-of-Step: Tracing Lusitania, the Negress, and the Archive with Renée Green,” (unpublished paper, last modified 9 December 2009).
  5. As Jafa has often averred, his desire is to produce visual art that “replicates the power, beauty, and alienation of Black Music.” Quoted in Greg Tate, “The Changeling Mise-en-Scène—Arthur Jafa’s Meta Love and the New Black Reportage,” in Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death (New York: Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, 2016), n.p.
  6. I think here both of Jafa’s recent art installations such as Apex (2013) as well as of the music videos commissioned by Solange Knowles to accompany her 2016 album “A Seat at the Table.” On these last, see Cassie da Costa, “The Profound Power of the New Solange Videos,” The New Yorker, 24 October 2016: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-profound-power-of-the-new-solange-videos (last accessed 1 June 2018).
  7. On the notion of antiportraiture as well as its specific mobilization within conceptual practices aimed at delimiting the retinue of stereotypical associations set off by black being within the visual field, see, respectively: Lauri Firstenberg, “Autonomy and the Archive in America: Reexamining the Intersection of Photography and Stereotype,” in Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, ed. Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis (New York: International Center for Photography and Harry N. Abrams, 2003), 317; and Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 9.
  8. For Jafa’s comments on this score, see his conversation with Hans Charles, op. cit.
  9. Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” e-flux 10 (November 2009): https://www.e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/ (last accessed 21 May 2018). For an incisive consideration of how ‘”poor images” circulate within diasporic cultures, see Krista Thompson, Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 12-13.
  10. Like other recent black moving image works, such as Weems’s Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me: A Story in 5 Parts (2012), or Ja’Tovia Gary’s An Ecstatic Experience (2015), LMMD cuts directly into its accumulated image sequences so that they might align more fully with the expressive capacities of the black bodies that they depict. For more on Jafa’s editing technique and its relevance to LMMD, see, respectively: Arthur Jafa, “Black Visual Intonation,” in The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, ed. Robert G. O’Meally (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 265; and Aria Dean, “Worry the Image,” Art in America, 26 May 2017, https://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazines/worry-the-image/ (last accessed 21 May 2018). Jafa’s moving image work should also be considered in light of presentations of his own archival practice, particularly the Untitled 2016 showing of over 200 of his visual notebooks in the “Made in LA” exhibition at the Hammer Museum.
  11. Here I have in mind Judith Butler, “Critically Queer,” in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), 229.
  12. For related meditations on the significance of the visual for imagining anti-essentialist ties and non-causal relations among black subjects, see Lorna Simpson “Mannered Observation 2002” in Lorna Simpson (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2002), 202; and Copeland, Bound to Appear, 94-95.
  13. On “visual bonds,” see Steyerl.
  14. For further thoughts on this score, see Arthur Jafa and Tina Campt, “Love is the Message, the Plan is Death,” e-flux 81 (April 2017): https://www.e-flux.com/journal/81/126451/love-is-the-message-the-plan-is-death/ (last accessed 2 June 2018). The most relevant scholarly commentary remains, Elizabeth Alexander, “‘Can you be BLACK and look at this?’: Reading the Rodney King Video(s),” in Thelma Golden, ed., Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, Distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994), 91-101.
  15. Tate, n.p.
  16. For compelling accounts of this moment in Dreams Are Colder than Death and of the film’s bearing on Jafa’s practice more broadly, see, respectively: Michael Boyce Gillespie, Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 12-14; and Alessandra Raengo, “Dreams are colder than Death and the Gathering of Black Sociality,” Black Camera 18.2 (Spring 2017): 120-140.
  17. Here I recall comments by the artist recorded at the Serpentine Gallery in London in February 2017 and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York the previous month; see, respectively: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7xloyY2J7g and https://vimeo.com/202696335 (last accessed 21 May 2018).
  18. For a further elaboration, see Huey Copeland, “Tending-toward-Blackness,” October 156 (Spring 2016): 141-44.