Blackness and Post-Cinema: John Akomfrah and the Otolith Group in Conversation

During the turbulent summer of 2020, the filmmakers met to discuss contemporary filmmaking and decentring the human

A conversation with John Akomfrah and the Otolith Group for Frieze.

John Akomfrah: The post-cinematic does not involve a rejection of cinema – it’s steeped in insights and knowledges and affinities with the cinematic tradition – but it clearly wants what Althusserians would call an ‘epistemological break’ with its practices.

Anjalika Sagar: I think of the post-cinematic in terms of evocation rather than explanation and effects more than causes. Post-cinematic affect allows a more complex relationship to multiple non-narratives that contribute to not-yet-articulated structures of feeling.

Kodwo Eshun: For me, it’s not only a question of screens or phones or apps. What’s useful about the term post-cinematic is its agnosticism towards narrative. It’s a way of stepping away from narrative. In the UK, cinema carries with it this imperative to narrate the nation. There is an unspoken expectation, whenever a Black British film is released, that it will tell the untold story of Black Britain. To me, the post-cinematic side-steps this cruel optimism of cinema. [Laughs] It implies an unspoken promise to open up an imaginative dimension of post-cinematic Blackness.  

John Akomfrah
Vertigo Sea, 2015, film still. Courtesy: Courtesy: © John Akomfrah, Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery, London

JA: If you’re Black and British, and you live in the UK, there’s a hierarchy of expectation about how you enter the cinematic frame. There’s a way in which Blackness is positioned vis-à-vis the cinematographic machinery – especially in terms of exhibition strategies or curatorial policies. And so, the minute you say, ‘I don’t really want to do this anymore,’ you’re changing the way Blackness is framed. More people have asked me why I don’t make cinema any more than they ever did when I was trying to make cinema and not getting anywhere. [Laughs] It’s as if some detail of Blackness is missing in the cinematic frame, and they would quite like it back. And I think: well, I’m not sure I want to give it back to you, you know? [Laughs]

KE: That’s what happens when the post-cinematic encounters Blackness. It’s the question of the unthought. What makes people uneasy is the sense that you’ve wandered off the path, you’ve broken the contract without being asked. That’s why they see something missing. Because it’s not there yet. [Laughs] It’s still being invented. 

JA: In its potentially destabilizing effect on settled norms and assumptions about Black agency, the post-cinematic calls into question all these certainties. The main thing is the courage that it takes on our part to embrace the unthought – a courage that is not acknowledged enough. 

AS: When we consider the idea of the unthought, it hasn’t come out of nowhere. Some of that courage comes from a longstanding affinity between us. One of the reasons we are having this conversation in the first place is the continuities of thought we share that are fundamentally transnational and which operate outside of the institutional stewardship of Blackness in the UK. 

The Otolith Group
The Otolith Group, O Horizon, 2018, film still. Courtesy: © The Otolith Group

JA: I couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve just said. This is to do with manifold forms of trespassing, which become possible because we have said to each other many times: ‘Let’s go here.’ Knowing full well, in advance, that the place you wanted to go to was not supposed to be for you. [Laughs] You could use the autobiographical confirmations that we’ve had from each other as the driving force of these trespassing journeys. I believe very strongly in the fact that we have known each other for so long. I’m indebted to the many insights that I’ve arrived at as a consequence of knowing you. It wouldn’t have been possible for me to be who I am without those encounters. It’s important to acknowledge these things, to speak about them in spaces that affirm them. 

KE: This is as serious as our lives, as Val Wilmer says1. One of the gambles of moving into the post-cinematic is the experimentation with the sonic potential of the image. It’s almost as if this dimension were repressed by standard cinematic language, as if there was something about cinema that works against it. When you multiply screens, or frames within frames, then the potential for orchestrating antiphony expands.

JA: You could say that there was a way in which we acquired these habits for licensed transgressions because of the immersive relation that we had with certain musical traditions. To say to the world: ‘You said this was not the right way to put an image together: three minutes of a figure speaking, without any nod to Aristotelian narrative conventions. Well, fuck you. We’re going to do it anyway.’ It’s not arrogance; it’s just this acquired, almost prophetic sense that having a figure speak for that long feels right. If you have the same voice repeated at the beginning and end of a work, as you do in your The Third Part of the Third Measure [2017] – an audiovisual installation that documents the work of composer Julius Eastman – how the hell do you know that’s going to work? There’s no handbook telling you this is something you can do. Yet, not only did you know it, but you did it. The Third Part of the Third Measure is just so wholly unto itself, you know? It has a unique ontology that is completely itself. I can’t think of anything like it [Laughs]. I’ve never seen anything like it.

John Akomfrah
John Akomfrah, The Unfinished Conversation, 2013, film still. Courtesy: © John Akomfrah, Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery, London

AS: You know a work is complete when it’s alien to you. Perhaps this is a spiritual state of abstraction of the unthought. An example of this indeed are the spoken pieces in The Third Part of the Third Measure, we wanted a voice to perform the introduction of his concert that Julius Eastman gave at Northwestern University in 1980. We needed female and male vocal performers but ran out of time, and we had approached the eminent vocal artist Elaine Mitchener who knows Eastman’s work well. But the idea to front and back-end the work with a second figure was something we had to do. A friend at the eleventh hour recommended the celebrated poet and author Dante Micheaux. Dante, also a great admirer of Eastman, solemnly recites his speech which skilfully queers the terms ‘gay’ and ‘guerrilla’ as well as other terms; Mitchener performs the same words with an improvisational and strident tone. This attempt of polyvocality was something we continued investigating in O Horizon [2018], with different voices and singers, and in INFINITY minus Infinity [2019], with this multi-headed, Black Asian goddess, whose thoughts cannot be contained within a single head. [Laughs] In INFINITY minus Infinity there is a sense of polyvocality in the recitations of Una Marson’s poetry and fragments of text by Édouard Glissant that allude to our Glissantbot [2017], which tweets four Glissant quotes per hour every day. How do these fragments speak to each other in a space of affinity that is simultaneously dissonant? 

KE: That relates to the question of situating Black figuration within a post-cinematic frame. With The Third Part of the Third Measure, the impulse was to stay in the non-space of the studio, in which a certain strategic abstraction emerges from digital Blackness. The performers exist in a time distanced from the spectator. To me, the post-cinematic allows an interscalar extension across time and space. What strikes me about your work, John, is the transhistorical time and cosmic frame within which you position your figures. When we see the performer that plays jazz musician Buddy Bolden in Precarity [2017], he is framed against the elemental expanse of the open sky. 

JA: There is a sense in which the human is just one of many ‘resources’ being marshalled to speak about the historical or the temporal in my recent work. I’m increasingly interested in those possibilities outside and beyond the solely human. I’ve worked in television and cinema for many years and, in those spaces, there is always a certain fiction in operation, in which everything you see in the frame is only there to make ‘real’ what the human does, says, believes. It’s complete horseshit because there is always more than that going on. [Laughs] The minute you start to give power to the other active elements inside the frame, something else starts to happen – something more pagan, less humanist. And this is not just an aesthetic question, but an ethical one, too, because it has real implications for how we operate in the world. Even the term ‘storytelling’ itself carries these problems, because there’s the assumption that everything you see in the piece is about the humans in it.

John Akomfrah
John Akomfrah, Mimesis: African Soldier, 2018, three-channel video installation still. Courtesy: © John Akomfrah, Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery, London

KE: The elephants in Four Nocturnes [2019] or the whales in Vertigo Sea [2015] or the sun that begins and ends The Unfinished Conversation [2013] or the banyan trees in O Horizon: none of these is framed as background. There is an effort to foreground them. In each of these projects, I see an effort to demote or decentre the role of the human so as to pay attention to the migration of elephants or the murder of whales or the process of desertification. In Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger [1975], Jack Nicholson plays reporter David Locke, who fights the Chadian desert and the desert wins. In Mimesis: African Soldier [2018], your figures are not struggling with the desert. It’s not clear that they are human in the way in which Antonioni wants to persuade us Nicholson’s character is human. It is as if your characters exist on a diagonal between the living, the dead, the undead and the unliving that renders them agnostic entities. 

AS: There is an absorption going on that compares with the free jazz of Ornette Coleman. The screens feel like a weave in which sounds and images absorb each other. Is it even montage? [Laughs] It feels more like a process of interrelation between everything in the wider scheme of things. The fact is humans cannot sustain themselves without a complex relationship to other forms of life. So, what does that look like politically or technologically? You have to explore this as a way of thinking the unthought. 

JA: To return to the question of the post-cinematic, it seems to me that one of its strengths is that it can recognize these gestures of demotion or absorption. It’s about questions of agency – multiple registers on the one hand and new relations on the other. In East Africa, colonial domination wasn’t just over people; it was about insight into how one husbands space. That cultural formation had an impact on the implication and ‘uses’ for animals, humans, land, weather systems, water, etc. If the colonial project had just been about people, then there wouldn’t have been the need to dominate the land. For Four Nocturnes, I looked at hundreds of images of landscapes in which colonial figures supervise fields cultivated by elephants and human beings. You might assume the elephant isn’t really doing very much but, actually, most of the time, the human is sitting on an elephant who is, in fact, doing the work. The post-cinematic allows us to reconfigure the cluster of forces, ontologies and agencies at work in a given landscape in a way that wouldn’t make sense in the cinematic. 

John Akomfrah
John Akomfrah,Four Nocturnes, 2019, three-channel video installation still. Courtesy: © John Akomfrah, Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery, London

KE: What I find compelling is that the ambition to decentre the figuration of Blackness requires a kind of mutism for everything else to flourish around it. That’s one of the most challenging elements in your work. 

JA: You’re completely right. I’ve got problems with the idea that, when someone walks from A to B, the transformations they go through have implications for everything in that frame, including the figures themselves. I don’t want to dismiss the ways in which – in a Fanonian sense – the Black body bears these burdens of misuse and therefore needs the conceptual violence of pushback. But I definitely don’t want to say that, as a consequence of this misuse and abuse, the frame must always privilege ‘action’. Let’s just say that there are certain expectations of the Black body and muting, as you call it, is one way to circumvent some of those expectations. 

AS: One of the things that drew us to make INFINITY minus Infinity was a convergence around the right to breathe. The entity enacted by Esi Eshun repeats the words ‘I can’t breathe’ in relation to both pollution and the chokehold. I had been thinking for a while about how racism can be understood as weather. Christina Sharpe also talks about anti-Blackness as a ‘total climate’.2 Concurrently, COVID-19 attacks the lungs – it feels as if you are breathing shards of glass – and the virus is disproportionately affecting Black and Brown peoples for all kinds of reasons. Black people are being asphyxiated by militarized police. The way to respond to these assaults on respiration, as artists, is through multiple performances in which the body is envisaged as a complex genre of the human. In INFINITY minus Infinity, Eshun is not performing the role of a person; she is an entity, a broadcaster from a dimension outside time.

The Otolith Group
The Otolith Group, INFINITY Minus Infinity, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artists

JA: I love the way that Eshun speaks. It’s not acting and it’s not reading. It’s fabulous and beguiling. This point you raise concerning racism as weather ties in with Eshun’s mode of address in her performance. Anyone who thinks that the environmental and the racial are separate, discursive regimes clearly hasn’t read the UK Conservative Party policy on immigration because, you know, they say it very clearly on the tin: ‘hostile environment’.3 

AS: Exactly.

JA: Geosocial pressures can be brought to bear on living conditions in order to change the climate or the way we breathe – as you highlight in INFINITY minus Infinity – to the point where we can’t breathe. The killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police incurred, once again, the union of those two words. Racism isn’t some self-contained gesture; it impacts and explodes and takes all kinds of forms and shapes in environments. And it creates environments. So, the idea that environmentalist discourse should be alien to Black people is like, well, sorry: you haven’t been listening. [Laughs] Slavery took place on plantations. They weren’t just businesses, they were environments, agricultural spaces. Slavery licensed varieties of rape and all manner of nutritional propensities and regimes. Calling it racist doesn’t tell you enough, you know? You need the optics of space and environment and climate to fully grasp its totality. Anyone who’s looking at the projects I’m working on, at the work that you’ve been making, can see that questions of the climactic are tied up, for us, with questions of the gestural.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 214 with the headline ‘The main thing is the courage that it takes on our part to embrace the unthought – a courage that is not acknowledged enough.

A new, limited edition made by John Akomfrah for Frieze is available to purchase now.

Main Image: John Akomfrah, The Unfinished Conversation, 2013, film still. Courtesy: © John Akomfrah, Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery, London

1 Val Wilmer, As Serious as Your Life: Black Music and the Free Jazz Revolution, 1957–1977, 1977, reprinted by Serpent’s Tail, London, 2018 

2 Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, 2016,
Duke University Press, Durham

3 The UK Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ policy was launched in 2012, under the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government, by then-Home Secretary Theresa May. It was designed to make it as difficult as possible to stay in the UK for those who do not have leave to remain.

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