If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Black Nationalism, rural Brooklyn, faces, and monoliths.
Bradford Young is obsessed with faces. More specifically, the Louisville-bred, D.C.-based cinematographer behind Pariah, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and Mother of George, is determined to render darker skin tones with a quality that does them visual justice. A series of these portraits anchors Bynum Cutler, Young’s elliptical exploration of the evolution of urban landscapes and its demographics, particularly as it relates to Bed-Stuy’s Weeksville settlement. A historic, intentional community, Weeksville was founded by its namesake James Weeks in 1838, not eleven years after the abolition of slavery. An entirely self-sufficient enclave, whose landowners enjoyed their status as registered voters, Weeksville thrived through the early 20th century, until its schools, churches, and various organizations were subsumed by the encroaching cityscape. Rediscovered in 1968 and ushered into preservation, the present-day Weeksville Heritage Center and Creative Time are now probing the site as an early casualty of gentrification with Funk, God, Jazz, and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn.
The God proxy among the group, Young set his three-part installation inside the dilapidated nave of the local Bethel Tabernacle AME Church, which also served as the site of Brooklyn’s first racially integrated public school in the 1890s. Bynum Cutlermines the forgotten history of its surroundings through Young’s powerful, monochromatic examination of its halls and congregation, as well as the Weeksville campus and neighborhood at large. During its run from mid-September to October, Black Radical Brooklyn functioned as an essential, multi-faceted conversation starter to address a Bed-Stuy, city, and country in flux. BOMB spoke to Young about the past, present and future of Bynum Cutler, as well as the various subjects it seeks to depict.
Sarah Salovaara I wanted to start by talking about setting since it’s the determinant in your exhibition. What was your relationship with Weeksville prior to your collaboration with Creative Time?
Bradford Young I didn’t really have a relationship with Weeksville prior to the Creative Time collaboration. I lived in Crown Heights for three years, so that’s the closest I even got to Weeksville, and I actually didn’t even know that Weeksville the settlement even existed. As far as I was concerned, everything past Albany Avenue was just Brownsville and East New York. So the invitation to do the installation was a big educational experience for me too, because I had no prior knowledge or prior engagement with Weeksville as a community.
SS Did Creative Time come to you? Is that how you got involved?
BY Yeah. At the time, Lisa and Rashida, Sean Peters, Riley, and Marcus all submitted requests to solo artists to submit proposals for possible installations that could work with their Community Partnerships. I submitted a piece, Bynum Cutler, I had been working on five years prior to actually getting the commission. It was funny, it was just something where Weeksville folded into it really nicely, and I just extended the proposal so that Weeksville worked into the scenario. That’s how it got to the conversation.
SS So what did it look like initially versus the finished product? Did you have to tailor it at all? Because the location, the Bethel Tabernacle, really figures into the piece. How did that adaptation work?
BY In terms of the setting of the original Bynum Cutler proposal, I always thought it would be a similar installation, but I wouldn’t use the American urban landscape to fly the black monoliths. The original thought was to use an American rural landscape to fly the monoliths, and the way it connected was that it was always about exploring this nomadic journey of African Americans throughout the United States, African Americans—black folk—who packed up their bags and left major urban settings to explore life in America’s rural setting. They were all going to be monuments to black folks who did that during the Great Depression, Civilian Conservation Corps, Dust Bowl era, and so forth. In terms of the original setting where I would place those monoliths, Weeksville fit because it just could have been a place of origin for some of those families. In Brooklyn, at the time, there was plenty of farmland, and so it did work out that people in the city, post-draft riots, were offered pieces of farmland. Because Brooklyn was more rural, they could be more active citizens and part of, at that time, America’s proposed democracy. So, it folded in nicely because it was about the migratorial patterns of African Americans and American history.
In terms of installing it in Bethel AME, that came later. I actually didn’t really have a setting in mind when I conceptualized the installation. I knew it was going to be a triptych, I knew it was going to be a three-panel installation, I just wasn’t sure where I was going to do that. I would have initially just been grateful to put it anywhere. But that partnership worked out, because I grew up in an AME church, and I’ve always sort of wanted to revisit my relationship with the church. I’ve had a sort of contentious relationship with the black church, but what I found in two decades of not being involved is that the relationship between the black church and the black community is complicated and layered. I became more interested in the subversive nature of the black church versus the sacred nature. Once I explored the subversive nature of the black church, I realized that I could disconnect from the sacred nature.
SS Would you mind elaborating on that?
BY Sure, the black church has always been a place of refuge for “disobedient” black folk. The Black Panthers movement met in the church, the civil rights movement started in the church, Nat Turner was an ordained minister, and James Baldwin was an ordained minister. All of these voices that have come out of our community, that have led our community in hardcore liberation struggles, somehow, someway, have come out of the sacred tradition of the black church. They’ve always used the spirit and the polarity between god-fearing people and people who fear the state. They’ve used that relationship to empower and embolden their struggle. Martin Luther King thought he could lead a liberation movement against the state because he was invested in the power of God, and the same thing was true of Nat Turner. He felt he could lead a successful slave insurrection because he was told by his God that it was time to lay down the axe on slave owners. That part I’m very much interested in.
In terms of what I say is subversive, it’s just that push back against state-owned black bodies. How that relates to Weeksville is an interesting example, because again, I started out with little direct knowledge, but once I did my studying and listening to folks, and was in conversation with people from Weeksville, it changed. Mr. Weeks, when he bought the land and sold it to some of the black families, realized that there was not going to be a black settlement without the church. Folks that had been traumatized by what was going on in the city would not be invested in the idea of any sort of settlement, in this idea of self-determination, if there was no connection to God. If God wasn’t part of the proposal, then it just would have sounded like the same old nation-state idea. I think that’s what separated this idea of black nationalism. I consider Weeksville an early version of black nationalism, separate from other versions in the sense that it offered a deal with God. They said you could come and you could educate your children at P.S. 83 and then you could also send them to church, where they could study the bible, and also have conversations about being safe and secure and seeking refuge in a house where they could be in a relationship with something more powerful than themselves.
SS Samantha told me that after the school was no longer in use, the church bought the building from the city for a dollar in the ‘70s, which is absurd. I’m curious if that sense of devaluation was at all an influence. I don’t think that it’s even been defunct for more than a decade, but it looks so decrepit inside.
BY Exactly. It just shows you, without all of the wear and tear of the environment on the building, there was also just human divestment beforehand. People had already decided that educating black children was useless, so in a country where we can’t really afford to close the doors of any schools, before the door was even closed, they had already closed the door on the children. So the building didn’t just fall apart because there was a leak, it fell apart because of mass neglect. There has always been a systematic neglect towards educating our children and specifically black and brown children. I really appreciate the question because it’s an interesting conversation about why that school is the way it is, and the trickle down of what you see there now is not just a leak—it’s a proposal and an interesting conversation about the American educational system.
SS And even more so because it was the first racially integrated school in Brooklyn.
SS When I think of your film work, I think of your use of color, lots of blues and oranges, and your naturalistic lighting. Did you know you wanted to shoot Bynum Cutler in high contrast from the start? To me, the black and white feels sort of apropos.
BY I see what you’re saying. I always knew it was going to be this monochromatic, monocultural exploration of that journey, and I felt like I didn’t want folks to be distracted by an environment of hyper-color. I felt like viewers would be able to engage with the apropos subject matter in a more intimate, direct way if they weren’t distracted by the color of green, twinkling leaves. I also felt that some of the lines that I was using, the train tracks for instance, you see on an everyday basis. They’re not that interesting looking when you look at them in color with the human eye. I thought that they might be able to transform themselves if I did it in a monochromatic environment, and also, I was very much aware that I was going to use black monoliths. The fabric and the texture of the monoliths were discovered on set. But the idea of focusing one’s attention to the parallaxing nature of those pieces of black material, I knew would only come about if I shot it in this monochromatic space.
Going back to some of my work on films, this was an opportunity to explore what I’m very much concerned with and very much obsessed with, which is how to bring a higher level of visual quality and a higher level of visual purpose to recording folks of a particular skin tone. I had not done that in black and white, and I was very much interested in exploring that in black and white. And some of that leads to my obsession with these very interesting wooden busts of men and women from West Africa, which you find in Benin and Nigeria, which aren’t of color at all. So it just provided an opportunity for me to sort of isolate those faces again, in a black limbo space, and focus in on how we could structurally organize the black face in a way I’ve only been able to do in color.
SS Who were those women? Were they parishioners?
BY Yeah, they are what the church calls “living legends,” people who’ve belonged to the church for fifty years or more. Some of the voices you hear in the soundtrack are their voices. I recorded ten of them and I shot a little more than ten of them but I was only able to use four because of time. I tried to choose the women—and obviously there’s one man in there—who had the strongest, most interesting gazes while I was recording them. I didn’t give them any particular direction, I just told them to look in to the lens and stare. I was hoping that the despair would change into a meditation on whatever it was that they felt they needed to meditate on at the moment, and that would give me some sort of isolating quality in their, for lack of a better word, “performance.” And so I just chose the ones where I felt like that was more apparent than the others, but they were all beyond interesting, like jewels, gems, of the community, and especially to Bethel AME. They are people that had been in that church when it burned, when it was across the street. Now it’s back on the other side of the street. They had been through the whole journey of that church and its history.
SS When you were speaking about the monolith, was that a reference to the light panel that’s present?
SS I found that piece really interesting, because it’s a bit like we’re being asked to immediately and literally reflect on what we’re seeing. Is that your way of almost implicating the audience?
BY: It is. It’s funny, because I’m very much decided on what that means to me in one way, but when I’m in conversation with folks, I’m very much undecided on what those monoliths mean to me. At base, they’re just monuments. And that draws up all types of questions about how important monuments are in communities. Why are monuments in communities always men, white men in particular, riding horses? Can a monument fall down and still have its relevancy? That’s why I have the first monument you see in the first triptych lying on the grass. I wanted to demystify it early on and then raise it up towards the end. The last one, you just rest on for five minutes and it’s also the one where you see a stand holding it up, unlike the others where the visual effects erase the stand. This one allowed a little more of a delicate touch where you say, Oh, there’s actually something behind it holding it up. It’s a journey of how that monolith exists in the frame more than just a journey of how the frame is structured aesthetically. It’s also a journey of how important monuments are in our community. I feel like they’re important, and we need to have them. They’re going to be part of our mythology, part of what’s going to continue the culture of our people. We pass these down to children and it’s important to see ourselves and who we are and where we’re going.
The second layer of meaning of these is about not always being able to see ourselves. In Bynum Cutler, the monolith is very abstract in one way, and that’s why I appreciated, as I started shooting, the reflective quality of it. In one way it’s a mirror of our selves. If I put a kid over that surface, you’d see him in it. So the mirroring quality of it is just another subtext in some sort of imperfect way. Also, as you said, it’s to implicate the audience a bit, to make them see, to engage, and to frighten them a bit. There’s that whole question of whether it’s moving toward me or am I moving towards it, did someone throw it at me? That’s part of, again, going back to the subversive nature of things. It seems sort of docile: “hang and don’t move,” but it’s actually very active.
As you push in on it, it parallaxes, it reveals things you didn’t see before. It shows you yourselves, it plays with all things that film is about, which is just the illusion of movement. I wanted to keep that conversation going too. On one level, I wanted it to be this hatch that black people could open in urban landscapes, a way to escape the abject nature of living in an urban landscape. If there was a handle on it, you could open it up and go into a black hole and never come back. There’s that on the one hand, and on the other you see yourself, see your children, see your future, and see your past.
Also, it is just a good old film trick. (laughter) To have something like that in a three-dimensional environment, and let it catch light. Maybe it could be luscious and pleasing to look at if it all worked out. In some of them, it doesn’t work at all. But yeah, implicating the audience, that encapsulates what it’s all about.
SS I think the sound design adds to that sentiment, because it feels like someone’s whispering over your shoulder, like they would in church, except in a more threatening tone. It’s hypnotic in a way that both attracts and repulses. One of my favorite images in Bynum Cutler is of the Weeksville cottages in the foreground with the projects behind it. It really captures the evolution of the neighborhood.
BY You’re right, that ties into where our communities are going, where they’re headed, and where they’ve been. Those images always compel me to photograph them because not only are they just interesting to look at, but you also get this contemporary sort of brutalist structure behind these iconic American structures, and that’s interesting to look at. But part of what attracted me to those frames was the fact that they are a big projection on our future. That’s what’s happening to our communities.
We left the cities to seek these sort of simple lives, and the original inhabitants of Weeksville were able to build these houses that had a very interesting symmetry and were all organized in a very particular way. The contemporary house and project intrudes space aggressively, without apology. Even when it stands over us and morphs us in an architectural way, what was there before still has so much resonance. That’s not to dismiss the fact that this building is anything other than a place where people live. They should have a right to live wherever they want to, but it reminds us of where we were, and where we began.
I think that image might even draw up a conversation about gentrification, it might even draw up a conversation about America’s persistent delusion of architectural integrity. Those houses are incredible, and what’s behind them, you’ve seen a million times. There’s nothing exciting about that. You won’t see that building and feel like you’ve discovered something you’ve never seen before, but those buildings in Weeksville, you literally think, That’s the promised land in the middle of East New York. And it is literally the promised land—not like because I shot it with infrared, but because it really is the promised land. It’s where people went to just live in peace.
You said something about the sound, and that was all Gingger Shankar. Initially, I thought this piece wouldn’t have sound, but then I realized she was the person who could bring the sacred quality to it, those delicate voices you hear. I didn’t get in the way of how she did that.
John and Alice Coltrane had a lot to say about who we are as sacred beings, and who we are just as people on the planet. They were trying to use the archetypical jazz sound and to find harmony with what the brothers and sisters in Asia, and particularly in India, were doing. That relationship with Gingger was a nod to that whole time in American musical history. She brought something else to it, something that was haunting. For me, it’s almost like a whole different piece. That sound is tremendous. I wouldn’t even be able to engage with it if I didn’t have that sound.
SS What’s going to become of Bynum Cutler now? Are you going to be able to install it anywhere else?
BY I’m hoping. If not, I’ll go to the next version. I’ll take those monoliths out west, stick a few in the Badlands, an obscure National Park in Alabama. I’ll take some to the Sea Islands in South Carolina and to Georgia, Yosemite, and Oklahoma—all these places where black people created settlements. That homestead culture that we have a relationship with and don’t hear about. I want to have that conversation. What are we doing, if we live in these cities, and have all these food deserts, why aren’t we reconnecting with that? I was talking to the elders in retirement, and everybody talked about gardening, which I thought that was so interesting. People who come from Georgia and South Carolina, move to Brooklyn, raise three boys, none of them died and none of them went to jail, and all they care about at the end of the day is gardening. If they can’t go back to Georgia, they’re just going to garden. It’s another projection of our destiny. If we keep staying in cities, and we keep getting shot, are we going to survive?
For more about Bradford Young, his films, cinematography, and photography, visit hiswebsite.
Sarah Solvaara is a filmmaker and writer living in Brooklyn. She is also a contributing editor at Filmmaker Magazine.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.