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Issue 106 April 2007 RSS

This Day Remains

From 1982 until 1998 the Black Audio Film Collective’s essays, films and ‘slide-tape texts’ opened up a new aesthetic and discursive space within the worlds of British art, experimental film, television and critical theory. A new exhibition celebrates their achievements

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In a contemporary art world characterized by exploration of the documentary, the archival impulse, the resurgent interest in the video essay, collective collaboration and the possibilities for alternative pedagogy, the cine-cultural practice of the Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) could not be more timely. Founded at Portsmouth Polytechnic in 1982 by sociology, fine art and psychology students John Akomfrah, Reece Auguiste, Edward George, Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, Claire Joseph (who was later replaced by David Lawson) and Trevor Mathison, the group, who later relocated to London, produced some of the most influential films and videos of recent times before formally dissolving in 1998.1 Despite its currency, the group’s work owes little to the present; it is singular, it inhabits a dimension of timely untimeliness. This yields its own complications. The title of their current retrospective, ‘The Ghosts of Songs’, which we curated, hints at the temporal hypothesis of the exhibition. Can a past that the present has not yet caught up with be summoned to haunt the present as an alternative?

To answer this question involves turning back to the early 1990s, when you could travel across town to the BAFC office in Dalston, East London. You would wend your way through Ridley Road Market, squeezing between crowds buying plantains and cassava from the West African women stallholders, past the Rastafarian traders with their racks of reggae CDs, past the stands selling rows of fake hair, giant African snails, pickled pigs’ trotters, lentils and alarm clocks until you finally emerged to confront an industrial building with the words Pretty Polly emblazoned on its front. In the early 1990s Chris Marker attempted this journey, hoping to return two BAFC VHS tapes; alas, the great man never found their building. We like to imagine him asking stallholders for Black Audio, only to be steered towards rows and rows of jungle techno CDs. It’s tempting to speculate on which covers might have caught his ear, which sounds tugged at his eyes.

Once you were buzzed in, you entered a vast third-floor warehouse conversion; white-walled, wooden-floored, light flooding in from the enormous windows. The Black Audio Film Collective were never all present at any one time, but you could be sure that either John or Reece or Lina would be there, peering at you from behind desks piled with papers and magazines. The giant circular wooden table that dominated the middle of the space was always occupied with people whose faces spoke of great expectation. These people had come from Delhi, Toronto, Melbourne, Dakar, Port au Prince, Havana, Manhattan, Frankfurt. They were artists, critics, programmers, curators and filmmakers, and they were intent on speaking with BAFC. You nursed your coffee and listened; eventually, someone, usually John or David, would find the right moment to introduce you to the German curator, the Canadian programmer or the Senegalese filmmaker, who would pause to reluctantly admit you into their conversation.

What drew us to the Ridley Road office then was the shared understanding that BAFC’s essays, video essays and slide shows (or ‘slide-tape texts’, as they called them) had opened up a new aesthetic and discursive space within the worlds of British art, experimental film, television and critical theory, the implications of which reverberated far beyond the restricted economy of British cultural production. BAFC insisted on the importance of a space for reflection on the forms that a new aesthetic might take. Each film was a proposition, an argument, an exemplification of their ideas and so provided the occasion for a number of critical battles around aesthetics, with everyone from the cine-avant-gardes based around the periodical Screen and the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative to the leftists at Race Today journal and the bureaucrats at the Arts Council. By showing up at their office, you were helping to keep that space of autonomy open. You were affirming your solidarity with their project. You were a fellow traveller.

Our individual encounters with the collective creation of BAFC had an indelible impact that would go on to inform our practice as The Otolith Group. ‘The Ghosts of Songs’ is shaped by the conversations that began back in Ridley Road and which continue today. It attempts to reframe these dialogues into a wider question addressed to the present: what is the potential of the movement of sounds and the circulation of images for knowledge production, speculative research and artistic intervention?

In their distinctive ways, the BAFC essay-films were characterized by a formal preoccupation with a poetics of the archive. The sound, image and temporality of the archive were reworked until it yielded a dimension of intimacy. The newsreel, the news report and the television documentary no longer addressed you with the certitude of authority; instead they became the raw material for an interiority that was entirely historical, for a fiction organized through an associative montage of meaning, memory and mood. Images and audio were called up from the graves of genre, tinted, slowed down, muted, re-scored and laid to rest at the same time. BAFC did not ‘interrogate’ the image, nor did they ever really ‘question’ it; they were not image police. Nor were they archaeologists of media, fascinated by each and every piece of celluloid fossil that passed through their fingers; informed by Marker’s Sans soleil (Sunless, 1983) and Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (1942), among others, they were more like midwives handling an archival fragment as tenderly as if it were a premature infant.

The quality of forgiveness bestowed on celluloid and magnetic tape bore witness to the sense that the documentary, as a form of authority, was itself a relic of the industrial era, an artefact of a bygone age, like the idea of social conscience invoked by the British postwar documentary tradition of Jennings, Basil Wright, Robert Flaherty and Harry Watt. One of the under-acknowledged yet most moving aspects of the BAFC film Handsworth Songs (1986) is the way in which it declares an investment in Englishness by insisting on a subterranean affinity between the neglect of the documentary genre, the quashed hopes of colonial subjects, the collapse of industry and the renunciation of the idea of public duty. These connections informed the ideal of the Commonwealth; for a brief moment after World War II they were shared by Tories, Labour, artists and independence politicians from Kwame Nkrumah to Jawaharlal Nehru onwards.

Twilight City (1989) evokes this strange time, neither anti- nor post-colonial, in the tinted archival scene of a garden party: One Nation Tories, such as Willie Whitelaw and Alec Douglas-Home, stand in formation; a young Margaret Thatcher is flanked protectively by her mentor Keith Joseph. Suspended in the void of the electronic soundtrack, the old Tory grandees and the woman of the future are mute; they remain deaf to the sustained chords that surge around them. It is as if the music is trying, in vain, to wake the image, which, deaf and frail, fails to respond to warnings of its impending irrelevance.

Empire was over, and yet it refused to die. In the sepulchral temporality of the sound mix for Signs of Empire (1982–4), subtitled ‘an investigation into the fiction of English national character’, the archival recording of postwar Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell proclaiming the Commonwealth ‘a vast multicultural association of independent nations stretching across five continents’ was summoned from the archives of the Imperial War Museum to confront listeners with its forfeited vision of internationalism. In the aftermath of the civil disorder that had inflamed Britain’s decaying inner cities throughout April and July 1981, replaying Gaitskellian optimism was more than a bitter irony; it was an exorcism.

The overwhelming mood of dread that emerges from the ‘slide-tape text’ of Signs of Empire could be felt throughout 1980s’ post-Punk culture. Eschatological dread could be heard in the pounding bass and shrieking sirens of roots reggae producer and DJ Jah Shaka. Electronic dread could be heard in the claustrophobia of Red Mecca-era Cabaret Voltaire, whose concerts BAFC attended. Industrial dread could be heard in the multimedia performances of South London-based group Test Department, attended by Mathison, Auguiste, George and Akomfrah. Within the specific context of gallery spaces such as the Whitechapel or Air, art schools such as St Martin’s or Camberwell, an audiovisual performance of Signs of Empire was a uniquely immersive experience of ominous majesty and immense yet tender malevolence.

BAFC and Brett Turnbull, Test Department’s video director, were both preoccupied with the redeployment of Constructivist aesthetics in a Postmodernist context. In photographs such as Pioneer Girl (1930) or Pioneer with Bugle (1930) Aleksandr Rodchenko’s colossal youth epitomized the Soviet faith in a communist future. By contrast, the neo-Constructivist images of Victorian monuments photographed by BAFC for Signs of Empire did not enlist the viewer into an elevated vanguard; instead, their formidable gravitas bore down on you, obliging you to lift heavy eyes up towards the image in a gesture of visual obeisance that mimed the national habit of genuflection in the presence of what Victor Burgin had called ‘patriarchitecture’.

From our present it is possible to see that the BAFC film essay bore witness to what the group called ‘the cruelties of political becoming’. Nobody escapes the contingency of politics, and nobody is guaranteed victory in tomorrow’s land because of the sacrifices made yesterday – neither uncomprehending Tories nor the Caribbean migrants in their Sunday best, descending from the gangplank of the ship Empire Windrush in 1948, the men with their trilbies set dead level, the women holding onto embroidered white gloves. These faces, their expectations intact, reproach the viewer.

The voice-over of Handsworth Songs neither explains those faces nor speaks for them; instead it imbues them with a condition of singular plurality: ‘Zachariah looked at the water and felt the song swell inside him. It was said that each person recognized their fate in the song. And as he stood there, the Caribbean sank into the water. The land was there, but he will not go to it any more.’ Nobody in the newsreel is actually called Zachariah – this name does not individualize a person; rather, it personifies the historical present of what we are witnessing. What we see is momentary and momentous; it is the beginning of a process of desubjectivation, in which one way of being in the world (Caribbean Commonwealth) has begun to modulate into another way of being in the world (Black British). A process that these people wanted but could not entirely articulate is happening before our eyes.

In these archival scenes the double optic of BAFC comes into focus; the looks on the migrants’ faces, their expressions of excited, prospective aspiration are heightened, but those expressions share space with a second retrospective look of chastened hindsight that belongs to 1986 but seems to emerge from within the image. To look back at the annals of postwar newsreels is to see every image as itself and as its unfolding, to see its suppressed and realized future, its contingencies and its over-determinations. The result is an affective landscape that is difficult to pin down, a film form that is memorable in its very elusiveness.

Running through Handsworth Songs is the idea that the civil disturbances in Birmingham in September 1985 that provided its point of departure were ‘the outcome of a violent and protracted suppression of Black presence and Black desire across the broad landscape of British life’.2 Handsworth Songs suggests that meaning was to be found in moments that seemed to have little or no immediate relation to the expressions of discontent that characterized the riots. Framed in this way, every image of longing opens out onto a secret history of dissatisfaction whose consequences were to be replayed across the films of BAFC.

Each film could be characterized as a travelogue through the times and spaces of modernity filtered through the moving images of the Black Atlantic. In the echoes of sound and the gaps of memory a sepulchral Britain emerges, populated by ‘the ghosts of other stories’, haunted by the spectres of capital, policed by monuments that bear mute witness to forgotten atrocities.

The Otolith Group was formed in 2002 in London and creates art works, curates exhibitions, programmes events and designs platforms for the discussion of contemporary artistic practice. The group consists of curator, writer and artist Anjalika Sagar and curator, theorist and artist Kodwo Eshun. The Otolith Group curated the exhibition ‘The Ghosts of Songs: A Retrospective of the Black Audio Film Collective’, which opened at FACT in Liverpool and will travel to Arnolfini, Bristol, and to The Whitechapel Gallery and inIVA, London.

1 Reece Auguiste teaches Media and Communication at the University of Memphis. Avril Johnson practices as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in London. Lina Gopaul, John Akomfrah and David Lawson founded the production company Smoking Dogs Films, which produces award-winning documentaries. Trevor Mathison and Edward George formed multimedia group Flow Motion and recording outfit Hallucinator in 1996 together with musician and artist Anna Piva. T. Mathison and G. Stewart now work together under the name Dub Alchemy.
2 John Akomfrah, ‘Black Audio Film Collective’, Documenta 11, exhibition catalogue, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2002, p. 553

The Otolith Group


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First published in
Issue 106, April 2007

by The Otolith Group

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