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Frieze London 2020

Playing (with) Ghosts

On the haunted, transatlantic landscape of Alberta Whittle’s new film commission, shot at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic

BY Taylor Le Melle in Frieze London , Frieze Week Magazine | 05 OCT 20

During the spring and summer just past, flowers and plants went in bloom, and the earth’s people were inside. Resetting, re-settling their cortisol levels and re-calibrating how to live, people were making ‘stuff’: bread, masks, cordials. But meeting, communing, those flesh connections were few and far between. 

Its title a reflection of the times, Alberta Whittle’s RESET (2020) – her commission as winner of this year’s Frieze Artist Award – combines found footage with material shot at the height of the global pandemic this spring; she had to coordinate some aspects of production remotely, when travel or physical collaboration were impossible. Whittle is based between Scotland and Barbados; between those two localities is the sea. And her film work –  its aesthetics, its inspirations, its intentions – grows out of the Atlantic Ocean. In You Can Never Touch the Same Water Twice (2017), Whittle depicts these waters throbbing violently on a windy day, shot wide-angle from a beach shore, or at close-up distance, camera peering over the edge of a boat, capturing a sun-bleached ocean with lacy trails of white sea foam. But the sea is charged territory. The European economic system of global extraction and violent transgression occupied the Atlantic Ocean from the 16th to the 19th centuries; the artist’s film practice leaves cues about this for viewers to follow towards their own understanding, digesting and quantifying (taking stock of). ‘Don’t act like you forgot … bitch better have my money’, Whittle sings, quoting the Trinidadian singer Rihanna, in Recipe for Planters’ Punch (2016). There are people whom she calls, in this way, to do their inner work and take accountability. There are people, too, whom she calls to do their inner work in order to self-liberate from these historic strictures. 

Mele Broomes poses at Jupiter Artland, outside Edinburgh, for Alberta Whittle's RESET, 2020. Courtesy: the artist

In Whittle’s work, the dead transfer themselves onto both the psyche and flesh of the living. She loves to play (with) ghosts. Mammmmmywata presents life solutions (2016) features a robed figure, nothing but silhouette and wind, standing at the edge of the sea. Facing away from the camera, this ghost enters the water in order to cleanse – or, as Whittle narrates, ‘exorcise capitalism … decolonise from within’. In A Study in Vocal Intonation (2018), the artist features as a kind of apparition, picked up by night-vision goggles, singing a recomposed version of ‘Amazing Grace’. Whether Christian hymn or Rihanna, Whittle seems to prefer to utilise songs that already exist: her rendition butts up against the ‘real version’ of the song, boosting the affective quality of these recorded performance-rituals: audiences, already knowing the words, can devote more time to exploring the potential directions for feeling.

Sometimes these studies of vocal intonation don’t employ language at all, such as her instructive module on ‘kissing teeth’ in between a whisper and a cry (2019), commissioned for the Margaret Tait award. Kissing teeth is a non-verbal oral action, always communicative and often transgressive, even aggressive. It is a gesture affectively linked to Whittle knowing that someone ‘better have her money’. These non-verbal gestures seem for Whittle, like the voice, to be a crucial vessel for reckoning with the past: to soothe calcified traumas we need to defy the expected modes in which we can communicate. Allegiance to a certain technique is always secondary for Whittle: the work is primarily used as a testimony or device to call for reckoning (accountability or healing). In her films, the artist forgoes a certain slickness that acts as a pervasive standard for the moving image, an eschewing of certain conventions more than a confrontation with them. 

What some would consider a hazard of shooting a film on location by the sea – the whipping sounds of the wind – instead forms a critical element of Whittle’s works, which is prominent in their soundscapes. Is the wind the ocean’s voice? 

Whittle’s recent monograph, How Flexible Can We Make the Mouth? (2019), accompanying her exhibition of the same name at Dundee Contemporary Arts, featured contributions by ‘speculative writer’ Ama Josephine Budge and Black studies scholar Christina Sharpe. Black studies, as I understand it (through the articulation of artist and writer Imani Robinson) is meant to be read in groups, and thus calls for engagement through participation rather than spectatorship. Similarly, I think Whittle’s films ‘work’ best if you do what she asks you, the viewer, to do. between a whisper and a cry begins with on-screen instructions. Follow them. Try to actually perform what Whittle asks, whether that is to breathe, to not forget, to be accountable, to ‘have her money’. Participate in her ritual.

Main image: Alberta Whittle, RESET, 2020, film still. Courtesy: the artist