still-moving-images: images that hover between still and moving images; animated still images, slowed or stilled images in motion or visual renderings that blur the distinctions between these multiple genres; images that require the labor of feeling with or through them.
Rereading my last blog post in preparation for the next, I realized that I neglected to include an important note of contextualization. I’m writing this quite literally on the move, or as my father fondly describes it, I am working while ‘galavanting.’ The introduction was composed on a plane and the first post was written in Berlin, a city that was my home for seven formative years. The thoughts I assemble in this second post are transcribed in Dublin from an afternoon spent in a café in Paris, directly facing the marvelous polyglot that is Belleville Park. So if my ideas are less precise than I’d like them to be, please grant me a pass for the murkiness that often accompanies itinerancy.
From my perch at a café table next to a window overlooking the park, I spent an afternoon writing and being pleasantly distracted by an evolving scene of young and older African men, women and children orbiting what seemed a very special bench overlooking the park. The bench was a magnet of convergence around which they came and went, met, greeted, chatted and embraced over the course of several hours. One very proud young man carried a toddler in his arms, at once entertaining her, showing her off, and reveling in the adoring looks of friends and passers-by. Others exchanged double-cheeked kisses, hugs and smiles, some smoked cigarettes, while a group of four young men wandered away, only to return moments later with steaming cups of coffee to reclaim the bench they deserted. From my vantage point as a café-voyeur, it was a beautifully speechless scene, despite the obvious banter that passed between them, for I was too far away to hear their voices. And because my spoken French (despite seven diligent years of high school and college study) is nearly nonexistent, for me more generally, Paris is a very quiet place which I often experience like a television on mute. But it is in no way silent. It is a place that resounds with deep phonic substance...
phonic substance: the sound inherent to an image; one that defines or creates it, that is neither contingent upon nor necessarily preceding it; not simply a sound played over, behind or in relation to an image; one that emanates from the image itself.
The image of my muted journey through the streets and cafés of Paris may seem like an oblique entry into the glossary term that is the topic of this post: still-moving-images. But I take the liberty of supplementing my definition of this term with that of phonic substance because it is a crucial component of my conception of still-moving-images and their significance as a modality for representing black visuality. As I wrote in my previous post, our perception of images is inseparable from other sensory encounters, and is indelibly shaped and determined by modalities of apprehension often seen as subordinate or supplemental to vision. The full impact of the phonic substance of black visuality is revealed to me most strikingly through the blurring of still and moving images that constitutes my definition of still-moving-images. Indeed, the innovative artistic practices deployed by black artists whose work suspends the presumed distinction between still and moving images transforms our encounters with black visuality through the slowing and stilling of moving images, and the animation, aspiration 1My reference to the full breadth of this term is inspired by Christina Sharpe’s moving rearticulation of aspiration in her glorious work, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC and London, UK: Duke University Press, 2016). For Sharpe’s discussion of aspiration, see 108–113. and quite literal setting of still photographic images into paradoxical forms of motion. Still-moving-images say something about black visuality, and at the same time, they say something differently.
Single images of black and white bodies flash across a screen for seconds or mere fractions of seconds. White bodies seem jarringly white; whiter than white; paler than pale; at times almost translucent. Many are iconic performances of what might be considered ‘badass whiteness’: rebellious, provocative, profane. Musicians, singers, models, stars merge with black and white cartoons and caricatures, and their equally badass black counterparts who punctuate alternating frames with black bodies in groups, as individuals, and in manifestly disembodied fleshly pieces.
Each frame presents a photograph that appears in a split second only to be replaced by another image at the rate of the blink of an eye. This blistering sequence allows us to linger on none of them, yet each image registers like the flash of a camera that blinds us briefly and sears an affective halo onto the cornea of its viewers. The images register in high contrast, juxtaposing hyper-whiteness against the full spectrum of brown-to-blackness that refracts the distorted hue of white supremacy. Suturing the two is the play of painted faces: blackface as the negative mirror of stunning black faces. Black faces grimace defensively in pain, protection or flexing the prowess of both male and female swagger. Black faces contort expressively in the quiet euphoria of reflection or the louder euphoria of excess, exhortation and exuberance. Extending those faces into full corporeality, black bodies lay prone and lifeless with flesh riven, exposed, mutilated or dismembered. Interspersed among them are celestial bodies of suns, moons, and planets, microbial monstrosities, and aquatic curiosities. Threaded from beginning to end, images of black bodies are dis- and reassembled as iconic and mundane, fabulous and fierce, defeated and vulnerable, defiant and unfazed. Between and among this shifting palimpsest, the repetition of a familiar figure becomes a haunting refrain that merges black with white to mock us with unexpected foreboding: Mickey Mouse.
Apex (2014) is an energizing and unsettling eight-minute film by Arthur Jafa. 2The film is currently on display at the Julia Stoschek Collection in Berlin, Germany through 25 November 2018. Parallel to this showing, its sibling was also on display in New York at Jafa’s most recent exhibition at Gavin Brown Enterprise in Harlem, Air Above Mountains, Unknown Pleasures. In this exhibit Jafa deconstructed Apex by returning the images featured in the film to their original still format, mounting them in sequence as prints where the only textual annotation included were the filenames used by the artist to catalogue them. Heralded as a black cinematographic maestro, Jafa has recently garnered global accolades for his astonishing homage to the vicissitudes of black pleasure and pain, Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death (2016), a film I have written about extensively elsewhere. 3See Tina Campt, “The Visual Frequency of Black Life,” in Arthur Jafa: A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions, exhib. cat. Serpentine Galleries, London / Julia Stoschek Collection, Berlin, ed. Amira Gad and Joseph Constable (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2018). Apex anticipates this celebrated piece with an intensity and tenacity that in many ways exceeds its contemporary successors. The film animates a remarkable selection of still photographs (many of which Jafa revisits in works such as Love Is The Message; Dreams Are Colder Than Death, 2014; and most recently, akingdomcomethas, 2018), carefully curated to provoke visceral responses. In the midst of this relentless loop, while only two images actually ‘move’ (the unmistakable pop-and-lock of flex-dancer Storyboard P, and a heavenly line of flight that tracks the path of a barely moving aerial object), Apex’s images are gripping, explicit, and at times unbearably graphic: photographic depictions of the aftermath of lynchings, burnings, torture and brutal violence intermingle occasionally with entwined bodies, bare breasts or bottoms.
But it is neither what Jafa’s images show us, nor merely their depiction of pained and sublimely beautiful black bodies that makes them register with such undeniable force. While Jafa has famously stated that he aspires to create “black cinema with the power, beauty, and alienation of black music,” unlike Love Is The Message, Apex lacks what might be understood in a traditional sense as music, and most certainly that would be recognized as black music. What provides the phonic substance of these still, but profoundly moving images? What makes them move – across a screen, congealing in a sonic-visual harmony then reemerging to etch a chilling imprint on its viewers? Here we must return to the question of frequency, or more specifically, we must refine the concept of frequency to interrogate the concept of pitch. For while frequency measures the cycle rate of the physical waveform, pitch is how high or low it sounds when we hear it. Returning to the Harvard Dictionary of Music: “Frequency is the primary determinant of the listener’s perception of pitch.”
The film begins with a pulse: a rhythmic, piercing sound you feel as much as you hear it. Its pitch is unmistakable, yet at first, strangely unidentifiable. It is the pitch of technological precision – the pitch of counting and accounting for; the pitch of measurement and accumulation. As my student Isaac Jean-François described it in his glossary:
“The sound, which mimics the ‘beep’ of a checkpoint in a video game or the ‘beep’ of the checkout conveyor belt at a supermarket, repeats about every second. Simulation and commodity are referenced in the film, with images of popular culture, consumerism and extraterrestrial forms. The beat behind the sequence of images appears to be almost in line with the flash of each image.”
It is the ‘appearance’ of synchrony – what Isaac calls its ‘almost’ in-line-ness – that is the key to this exquisitely moving work. For the pulse of the film is, in fact, arrhythmatic. It begins in synchrony, then slowly moves not out of, but slightly off-time with the progression of the images, in the process leading viewers to experience an effortful form of arrhythmia themselves. As the pulses slow and fade and resound again, as multiple beats overlap and syncopate then differentiate again into single, serial beats sometimes rising in pitch, sometimes lowering instead, the impact is far more embodied and corporeal than visual. For the viewer instinctively responds in kind, not through vision but with breath. Sound syncs with breath as the pulse merges monitor with metronome.
The pitch of this pulse registers at a very specific frequency – the frequency of a heartbeat. It is a pulse in the dual sense of the word: a sonic pulsation and the measure of heart-breath that is life. The frequency that animates the stunning aspiration of still-moving-images that is Apex is the ubiquitous sound of the hospital ward and the echo of bodies wired to a pitch-frequency that monitors life. The metronomic pulse of life Jafa conjures to animate the still-moving-images that comprise the piece calibrates a visual frequency that tethers black life to black death, black pleasure to black pain, and black beauty to its inextricability from the terrible beauty of a black grotesque.
Apex's irrepressible, irresistible pulse delivers an inspiring instantiation of Jafa’s aspiration both of and to a black cinema that channels the power of black music. It is a provocative realization of his signature analytic of “black visual intonation,” a cinematic practice in which “black images vibrate in accordance with certain frequential values that exist in Black music.” 4Arthur Jafa, “69” in Black Popular Culture: A Project by Michelle Wallace, ed. Gina Dent (Seattle: Bay Press, 1992), 249–54. This insistent pursuit – to develop the sonic and musical intonation of images with the capacity to fully render the Black experience – is clearly the motor that has driven Jafa’s work for decades. To me, it is a question of labor: the critical and affective labor we must marshal as participants in the multisensorial experience that is Apex. It is the labor of feeling with and feeling for that defines still-moving-images. It is the labor I describe as hapticity. And yes, the latter is the next keyword in our glossary...