Black Aesthetic Strategy: Images that Move | Rhea Storr | Wednesday, 04.08.2021


Edouard Glissant proposes errantry as a non-monolithic formation of identity. 1Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, transl. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1997). Errantry is produced through an engagement with the other on unmeasurable terms. It is a form of wandering which is chosen rather than enforced, a privilege rather than an exile. Errantry cements relation, rather than self-determination or nationalism. For brevity, I wish to sidestep a philosophy of errantry which could easily lead to a discussion of difference and the rhizomatic. Exploring errantry only as a theory denies its relevance to particular geographies and cultures. Instead I want to focus on a located errantry produced through an aesthetics of the moving image, in order to propose a useful framework for Black filmmakers.
When Black Radical Aesthetics strays from dominant forms of representation, it enacts a form of errantry. In this sense the purpose of errantry is to trouble the expected. I am interested in an errantry which can be observed as precarious, an unforeclosed between-state which describes a Black diasporic existence. The Caribbean inherently embraces the simultaneous existence of multiple cultures, ethnicities and diasporic existences. Glissant himself writes from a Martiniquan perspective; he was educated in Paris and taught in New York.
The two films which will be discussed here – The Human Surge (2016) by Eduardo Williams and IWOW: I Walk on Water (2020) by Khalik Allah – take the wanderer as their theme, subjects living otherwise to the expectations of their environment. Errantry is not only embedded in the wandering subjects of these two films. The films also employ an errant aesthetic by troubling duration, sound and choice of medium.
The Human Surge by Eduardo Williams is shot between Argentina, Mozambique and the Philippines. Over these three geographies, the fictional characters are left to ramble through the frame in a loose narrative which centres on connectivity, labour and leisure. Although The Human Surge does not always focus on Black life, its overall portrayal of the Global South makes connections between economies which affect marginalised peoples. Williams portrays bodies in motion, non-actors who slip-slide into scripted roles. Many of the characters have an anti-work agenda or view labour as an inconvenience. Desire is the privilege of the errant, a freedom to move, connect and refuse at will. These wandering souls transition from interior to exterior and back again, creating social relations played out in front of the camera and in escape of it. In Mozambique we hear the music of a party only from the outside. Conversations held in the film are often heard but unseen. Idle talk embraces riddle and fantasy – a shirt which enables flight or smelling with one’s fingers, for instance. For the most part errantry and labour are opposed in The Human Surge, but it is worth noting that the freedom of errant desire in the film is not immune to co-optation as work. Williams shows how desire can by monetised when sexual acts are performed by a group of men to an online audience for money.
Williams as filmmaker too enacts errantry and labour in the production of the image. A Black Aesthetic which proposes an alternative understanding of labour is vital, especially considering a long history of exploitation of Black people’s labour and image. A strained relationship to labour can be employed as a Black Aesthetic strategy through the subject’s ambivalence or independence from the camera. In The Human Surge, the camera struggles against its capitalist purview to operate as a perfect and unfailing machine, just as the subjects struggle for playtime against the insistences of work.
Williams uses disconnection between sound and image as an aesthetic strategy which does not reproduce the mechanics of factory life or consumerism depicted on screen. Whilst the camera is sometimes far enough away to lose sight of the subjects who walk on ahead in the film, lapel microphones are placed upon them, meaning we are visually disconnected but sonically close. Williams previously employed this visual/sonic divide in his short Could See a Puma (2011). These two independent movements between camera and subject enact a negotiation for power. Williams employs deviant sound to place us on the periphery. As a viewer we must be content to lose control over our central positioning and sit away from the thick of the action. Glissant describes this type of movement as circular nomadism, a peripheral non-extractive movement. 2Ibid, 11–13. How could this movement contribute to a Black Aesthetic? Errantry evades the overdetermination of Black bodies and allows them to escape capture. It enables Black bodies to perform a refusal as well as depict them as located beings in relation to their environment. A Black Aesthetic strategy which embraces errantry does not allow the camera or the viewer to dominate.
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Sergio Morosini in Eduardo Williams’s The Human Surge, 2016, film still. Courtesy of Grasshopper Film

Williams uses multiple formats – Super 16mm, digital footage rerecorded to Super 16 and digital recordings themselves. Format marks the change from one country to another while the act of recording itself is left to wander. Errantry uses film and digital recordings as an exploration of the many ways in which we engage with screens. In a near seamless transition, we enter a computer screen in Argentina to be transported to Mozambique, a way of moving which will later be vocalised: ‘Sometimes I allow some words to carry me far away.’ Can images also have the power to transport, to feed the wandering mind?
IWOW: I Walk on Water by Khalik Allah is similarly errant in its long and loose narrative. The film is a three hour and twenty minute portrait of the unhoused in Harlem, New York, which is interspersed with footage from Allah’s own life, his girlfriend Camille and a trip to Haarlem, Netherlands. Here I do not mean to equate homelessness with errantry, which must be of free choosing, a wandering and a desire. Rather I want to think about duration and medium with respect to errant forms of making.
The film focuses on the relationship between Khalik Allah and a Haitian man named Frenchie, a schizophrenic who is often high and has been living on the streets. Allah and Frenchie have a long-standing relationship, he has been photographing Frenchie intermittently for seven years. Duration here is instituted as a form of care. IWOW could convey its message in a much shorter timeframe and yet the film’s long and lingering duration reads as a tribute to Frenchie who gives freely; singing, telling stories and offering spiritual opinions. The film is all the more a feat of endurance given that (excepting a few digital scenes and VHS archive material), IWOW is shot on photochemical film. Allah is using a small 16mm camera, most likely a Bolex which can be seen in some of the subway scenes. A Bolex can usually only shoot three minutes of film before a new roll must be loaded. In contrast to The Human Surge, Allah’s time with his subjects is limited by his apparatus. Allah becomes errant when he runs out of film and must go back home to fetch more in order to fulfil his desire to keep shooting. Whilst he has control over duration when shooting, he is beholden to his subject: Allah does not know exactly when or where he will see Frenchie.
IWOW also favours slow motion close portraits. I want to propose that slow motion here has both a practical and theoretical function. Slow motion elongates time because it requires that the film move through the camera at a faster rate. It produces an abundance of time compared to that spent with the subject. Slow motion can be used as a tribute, an ode, it holds an excess of time. Borrowing from Saidiya Hartman, we could even say that slow motion ‘steals’ time in the service of the Black Aesthetic. 3‘… stealing away defied and subversively appropriated slave owners’ designs for mastery and control – primarily the captive body as the extension of the master’s power and the spatial organization of domination. Stealing away involved not only an appropriation of the self but also a disruption of the spatial organization of dominance.’ Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, Race and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 69. Slow motion is not inherently a favourable aesthetic strategy and it can also be a form of voyeurism or scrutinisation. I want to suggest that IWOW does not entirely escape this voyeurism, considering that Allah is in a relative position of power to Frenchie, who is clearly vulnerable. Beyond the practical, slow motion is an amplifier of emotion and often an expression of desire. Slow motion is errant time, an example of the Black Aesthetic described by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney as ‘luxuriant withholding – abundance and lack push technique over the edge of refusal. 4Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013), 48. Slow motion can be considered an excess of frames, an abundance, a vehicle for care and tribute to Black bodies.
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Khalik Allah, IWOW: I Walk on Water , 2020, film still. Courtesy of Dogwoof Ltd.
As has been touched upon, photochemical film can be used as an errant medium. The means of production, especially when using a small camera like the Bolex, lends itself to wandering, unbiased by the immediacy of a digital image. 16mm is created in the faith (channelling the wayward spirituality of IWOW) that there will be an image once the film has been developed.
In a tense conversation with Camille, Allah comments that he needs his camera to be able to see. The camera acts here as a ‘worlding’ device, a means for understanding. Smaller 16mm cameras do not record sync sound and we very rarely see image and sound in sync. Whether it be a hymn, rap or idle conversation, the sound in IWOW attunes us to another narrative being placed alongside the image rather than in service of it. Sound-bodies are left to wander away from their images as Allah searches for God within himself and is no longer preoccupied with a documentary representation of reality. When the digital image enters the frame, we snap out of the hallucination. These moments of clarity break free from the slow glide through the streets of Harlem. Much like Williams, there is a preoccupation with light qualities; the flicker of the screen rerecorded, the fluorescents of late night open stores, of cars, of night and day. Photochemical film can be used in a way which resists a form of documenting which seeks to fix Black bodies. By allowing for free movement (with sound as well as image) within a strict durational structure, photochemical film can be used as a Black Aesthetic tool to understand or ‘world’ rather than document. Errantry allows for a subjective navigation in tension, which does not need to be resolved or translated.
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Khalik Allah, IWOW: I Walk on Water , 2020, film still. Courtesy of Dogwoof Ltd.