Black Aesthetic Strategy: Images that Move | Rhea Storr | Dienstag, 31.08.2021

Dislocation / Relocation

Remember, Shahid
memory, diaspora, is moving through emerging modes of thinking and learning, physical presence, and gesture.
– Suneil Sanzgiri quotes Agha Shahid Ali in Letter From Your Far-Off Country (2020)
Dislocation/relocation describes diasporic movement. We can understand Black diaspora as a dispersal of peoples brought about by a myriad of factors, not least transatlantic slavery and its subsequent reverberations. In short, the enslavement of Black people is responsible for many Black diaspora movements between Europe, Africa and the Americas. Paul Gilroy terms this ‘The Black Atlantic’, which includes counter-cultural modernist movements formed between locations. Consider for instance the effect of a Black musical diaspora on the histories of jazz, sound system culture or hip-hop. 1In reference to Black music Paul Gilroy writes: ‘their special power derives from a doubleness, their unsteady location simultaneously inside and outside the conventions, assumptions, and aesthetic rules which distinguish and periodise modernity.’ Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Verso, London: New York, 1993), 73. Notions of identity, culture and language are partially severed and remade in diaspora.
I want to focus on the ability of the moving image to convey a locatedness (or lack thereof). Is there a uniquely Black diasporic set of aesthetic strategies for image-making? Not all of the works discussed are produced by Black filmmakers but I have chosen to highlight particular ways of working as useful to Black Aesthetic Strategy. By considering position, fragment and mix in experimental cinema, my emphasis is on relocation rather than disconnect. To convey the totality of Black diaspora is an impossibility not to be viewed as a problem but a standpoint, a place from which we might move through rather than trouble. I do not wish to produce a lament for lost connections but find a filmic language in which the personal intricacies of diasporic life are not dismissed as unique or individual; a diaspora aesthetic which finds connection and community through the moving image.
Suneil Sanzgiri invites us to think about locatedness and visibility in his short film Letter From Your Far-Off Country (2020). A meditation on diaspora, history, ruin and anti-caste protest in India, the film gathers together a multiplicity of voices. The work of poet Agha Shahid Ali is introduced early into this chorus of voices, with a letter written to himself as if by another person located in Kashmir (Ali was a Kashmiri American Muslim). We also see the Shaheen Bagh protests, initiated in 2019 and led by Muslim women against the Citizenship Amendment Act, in addition to images of political playwright Safdar Hashmi and B. R. Ambedkar, a campaigner for Dalit rights and architect of the Constitution of India. The film slip-slides between clarity and blurring of place and voice. At points, position is clearly located, for example through a discussion of origin of the family name Sanzgiri. At other times the film disorientates and resists a static positioning, either through the pace at which multiple voices present themselves or the constant switch of attention between text, image and sound. For example, the film tells us that ‘giri’ means ‘mountain’ alongside the image of a digital rendering of a mountain. In a disorientation, the perspective migrates to the mountain’s underside as if we are traversing google maps. This moment exposes the artifice of the rendering, going to the edge of its digital limits to reveal a series of tessellating triangles beyond what is supposed to be visible. A dislocation without relocation means alienation or death. Letter From Your Far-Off Country is not an education, it doesn’t serve as an explanation to a certain set of events or histories. Rather it states its position from a passionate and empathetic point of view, often told through cultural practice. (See for example the speech made by actress Shabana Azmi, using the platform of the International Film Festival of India in 1989 to bring awareness to the murder of Safdar Hashmi).
What can we learn from this work on citizenship and diaspora that could be utilised for Black experimental cinema? Perhaps a work which positions and repositions through a multiplicity of voices and sources allows a standpoint which works from both within and without. It has the potential to gather a geographically disparate audience with commonality of experience across Black diaspora. Constant movement resists nation-building and structures which control, limit and exclude, of which the moving image is a part. Often this movement must employ the imaginative. The elsewhere-political-power of cultural practice is signalled by the blue skies and light flares in Sanzgiri’s film along with images of cultural producers. This cultural imagination frees bodies from a locatedness which seeks to fix them and has the power to conceal, protect and intervene within a political sphere.
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Suneil Sanzgiri, Letter From Your Far-Off Country, 2020, film still, courtesy of the artist
The form of Letter From Your Far-Off Country is equally varied. It was shot on expired 16mm film but includes other sources such as a phone screen, digital images represented within the 16mm frame, archival sources, coloured filters and direct marks made onto analogue film. Often a more intimate engagement with bodies is obscured by vertical light streaks, a technique that can be achieved when the film slides through the camera, not held in its intended place. As we view a small square image of Hashmi and hear group chanting, a watery copy flickers behind, not quite matching the rhythm of the frame rate, out of time. Digital images are similarly made strange through the analogue frame, forcing time periods upon one another in a further disorientation. It could be argued that mixed formats which confuse time and an intentional misuse of the recording process can be used to articulate a Black Atlantic position. In other words, these strategies allow space for a Black diasporic filmmaking which disorientates in order to escape a totalising fixity, forged through reductive understandings of Black life.
Similarly, the fragment as aesthetic tool is a resistance to totality. Fragmentation in Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Reassemblage (1982) questions the production and circulation of images themselves in the documentation of women’s lives in rural Senegal. Why revisit this film discussed at length elsewhere? Reassemblage must be considered in the context of its time. It is in many ways a film about documentary filmmaking – a film about how to conduct an ethnology. Trinh questions the ethics of an ethnologic camera, as she states in the voiceover: ‘Ethnologists handle the camera the way they handle words: recuperate, collect, preserve.’ These words are spoken in sharp contrast to Trinh’s statement at the outset of the film: ‘I do not intend to speak about, just speak nearby’. The framework which structures the film is from the very beginning concerned with location as a politics of making.
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Trinh T. Minh-ha, Reassemblage, 1982, film still, courtesy the artist
In agreement with Sanzgiri’s film, Reassemblage images in fragments rather than by describing or informing. It focuses on women’s labour and domestic life especially, producing cropped portraits which show a small part of the action – an arm reaching into the mud, hands weaving, a woman combing her hair. Although Reassemblage has a clear location, its narrative is unresolved for those viewers seeking to absorb knowledge. Trinh characterises this fragmentation as a resistance to ascribing meaning. Dislocation/relocation replaces meaning with movement, that is, to be nearby. I want to suggest that in a contemporary context Trinh’s approach is a sticky ethics: is it really possible to engage with another culture and escape the imposition of a voyeuristic gaze? Negotiating the terms of engagement is rarely a simple exchange – dislocation/relocation does not automatically constitute ethical practice. There are other less palatable reasons to fragment. Fragmentation can also be an excuse for an empty, lazy form of filmmaking, an absence of meaning because it hasn’t been considered at all. Cultural appropriation is also a type of dislocation/relocation, a wilful claiming without consent and further still, an unwanted embodiment. Is it in keeping with Trinh’s ethnology for example, that she admits to wanting to steal a woman’s image or that she expresses that a woman becomes hers as Trinh watches her through the camera?
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Rabz Lansiquot, where did we land, 2019, film still, courtesy of the artist
A contemporary example of fragmentation can be observed in Rabz Lansiquot’s where did we land (2019) comprised of 900 archival still images addressing Black violence. These images are often in extreme close up, pixelated and unapologetic copies which overwhelm in their excess. Sound is crucial to where did we land, regulating the image in hypnotic, laborious, mechanical rhythm, a sonic consistency in the presence of visual dislocation. In Reassemblage, sound performs the opposite function, and cuts abruptly in and out of the voiceover, thereby heightening the sense of fragmentation. In Lansiquot’s film the images are navigated through voiceover whilst sound imposes structure. Fragmentation in where did we land questions the way that images of Black life are made to circulate, privileging images of gesture, portraiture which returns the gaze and the body in movement (which often focuses on the limbs). Lansiquot ultimately questions the effectiveness of where did we land because of its reproduction of violence for criticism, quoting James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time – ‘the impossible is the least that one can demand.’ Just as images which depict Black life are frequently of violence or are captured and circulate violently, fragmentation can offer an abrupt and challenging aesthetic, the violent removal of one image as it is relocated next to another.
Fragmentation reassembled constitutes a mix, which is a curated collection of fragments over time. If something is ‘in the mix’ it is there for our consideration and a part of the field in which other works also exist on equal footing. The mix has the power to centralise othered bodies, and decentralise dominant images, to gather images or sounds around a construct as infinitely complex as Black diaspora.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 (2011) is a feature length documentary on the Black Power movement. Made by Swedish director Göran Olsson, the politics of archival access and Black Power Mixtape’s Swedish viewpoint merits its own discussion elsewhere. However, I’d like to focus on one particular scene of archival footage in which Angela Davis gives an interview from prison. This 1972 footage in which Davis speaks on violence has circulated widely. Davis is asked whether violence will bring about revolution. Anticipating the future contexts in which a simple reply of ‘yes’ might be construed, Davis relocates the question, citing the extreme and ongoing violence already institutionalised against Black Americans. In this moment Davis understands that her image will be dislocated and relocated for its future and possible contexts. The image zooms in on Davis in abstraction against an aqua blue prison wall background, suggesting that the camera is further away than the intimacy of our engagement with Davis would have us believe. What appears to be a long lens creates a heightened sense of voyeurism on a vulnerable body. Black filmmakers can avoid inadvertently replicating this confrontation to Black power by thinking through the power dynamics created by the location of the camera in relation to director and subject. Preempting the ways in which such a work might circulate ‘in the mix’ means that filmmakers can strategically position themselves at the point of production.
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Original footage of Angela Davis by Tom Goetz, 1972, in Göran Olsson’s Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975, 2011, film still
A discussion on locatedness has produced a focus on portraiture. In the face of dislocation the narrative thread of the works discussed is carried by a voice or a body. It might be more accurate to say that these films are being considered more for the portrayal of the relation between bodies and space, than spaces in themselves. Dislocation/relocation can also be considered as an embodiment; assuming the role of another from their perspective. It is no accident that many of these films foreground women and all portray people of colour. Dislocation/relocation is an attempt to reposition bodies which are under duress, oppression or are not dominant voices in society. Their plights are often intertwined. These bodies require their image to be remade in unexpected ways, ways which engage with physicality, and which fight not to be held, smothered or typecast but to keep moving through, forging narratives for other diaspora bodies for which they might feel an affinity.
I have already gone somewhat against the intention of these films by imbuing them with discernible meaning, relocating them for my own purposes. My discussion is not total and neither do I expect it to be the final word. These works sit with me (or I sit nearby them), not always understanding but watching nonetheless, attentive to their aesthetics as I perform my own dislocations/relocations. To conclude, here is a work which circulates freely on the internet (and therefore with the same intention of a mixtape). It’s inclusion here, in the mix, warrants no further explanation: Rebirth is Necessary.