John Akomfrah by Shezad Dawood

On the eve of Signs of Empire, his current show at the New Museum, the British artist and filmmaker elaborates on how philosophy and the history of cinema have influenced his practice. 

Part of the Theory + Practice series.

BOMB 144 Summer 2018
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Installation view of Transfigured Night, 2013, two-channel HD video installation, 5.1 sound, 26 minutes 31 seconds. All images copyright Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Theory + Practice is a series supported by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

So John and I always seem to run into each other somewhere unexpected, where we have the opportunity to witness each other’s work and/or continue the thread of what seems to be an evolving dialogue. Delhi Darbar in Dubai was one such instance, and another was Lisson Gallery in New York a few years back. This time we found ourselves conversing over the phone between London and Karachi, where I was about to begin a film shoot looking at the specific and allegorical history of the former US consulate. John began the conversation by sharing the story of his abortive trip to Pakistan to try and document responses to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Unsurprisingly perhaps, we got onto the subject of Walter Benjamin’s dialectical image, where through a layering of things (ideograms, thematic pictograms), something new and radical can emerge in the present.

—Shezad Dawood

Shezad DawoodThere’s something in that dialectical image—a mode of articulating a resistance. We take control of the image, how it circulates, and how it’s mediated.

John AkomfrahIndeed. Interestingly, when you return to the primary themes that certain movements and collective groups have put together, rather than finding a set of rhetorical flourishes (that linguistic bait), there’s actually a whole set of very detailed forensic investigations of form. Whether you look at Jean-Luc Godard’s experiments in Mozambique or Chris Marker’s in his film essays, the first step is always: this is how you use a camera, or this is how you get a camera’s position to change.

SDYou’ve touched on something really key, which is that the politics of an activist practice heighten the formal stakes at play as much as anything else does.

JAI think at some point all political avant-gardes become hyperaware of the formal questions that underpin aesthetic practice. Everyone comes to understand that the rhetorical flourishes that organize your politics have to be formally grounded when they are migrated into another medium of expression. In other words, when you’re on the set or in the lab, you need to find the formal means by which you realize those rhetorics in this new space.

SDHow do you see the role of seduction in politically or socially based practice? For many people, seduction is a dirty word. But we’re actively involved in providing a counter narrative to the dominant strain of images and to conventional distribution methods. There’s a need for an alternative aesthetic dimension.

JAIndeed. All my interest in cinema—in both its mainstream and experimental varieties—originates in the experience of something grabbing you and taking you in. To ground it in some examples for the moment, the first time I saw Gregg Toland’s cinematography in Citizen Kane, there was something about the focus that arrested me. It was the same with my first experience with a Chris Marker or a Stan Brakhage.

SDOne of my favorites is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Appunti per un film sull’India. It’s totally changed the way I look at the subject. I’m haunted by the structural quality of that film every time I’m working with an actor or non-actor.

JA It’s structural, but not in the sense of being arcane or obscure. I remember, for instance, the first time I saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror or Pasolini’s Theorem. I was fourteen or fifteen and I didn’t understand “what was going on.” But I could navigate my way through both films because I became increasingly aware that there is a whole structural form at play. Mirror starts in color and then it goes to black and white, and I remember thinking that he must be trying to say something to me. What is that? I didn’t necessarily get it then, but I knew something was being addressed by formal means, by how it was laid out.

SDIt’s funny, I grew up with Alex Cox’s Moviedrome on late night BBC, where Cox would give these crazy in-character intros to films. One of the most powerful experiences for me was seeing Johnny Guitar because of exactly what you describe. I couldn’t put it into words because I was a kid, but there was something in the saturated color and the women wearing trousers that I took a kind of perverse pleasure in. It was only years later that I realized I was taking pleasure in difference. I was brought up by three very strong dominant Pakistani women and seeing Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge was a total mirror. Which serves as a playback to Tarkovsky… (laughter)

JAThis reminds me of something else—another kind of cross-pollination. One of the things that happens if you get involved in, let’s say, two different arcs and you’re interested in both, is that at some point they start to contaminate and infect each other with possibility.

I was shown Johnny Guitar as a genre film in college, but because I was also going to the National Gallery and the Tate at the same time, I could see an elective affinity between Gothic painting and Johnny Guitar. It was very striking in terms of that sort of migration of film noir from black and white to color.

It wasn’t that I was particularly interested in medieval or Renaissance art, but the insights you could gain from looking at certain kinds of paintings and their echoes in cinema were very clear to me. Or, when you look at Bill Brandt’s photographs, you could say, Okay, he may not be a film noir director, but there’s clearly an affinity there. He’s drawing from both film noir and Expressionist paintings and other works from the twentieth century. Does this make sense?

SD It totally makes sense to look broadly, even just to have that fluidity to expand your tool kit. And to go back to what you said, it’s not to be structural in the arcane and hermetic way that, say, Brakhage and others took it. It’s to think about how structure imposes on form and vice versa and how you then deal with it. I think Bill Brandt connects to Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter from 1955, which connects to Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler from 1922. It’s almost a recirculation. Actually, it’s funny how much the practice of crossing categories and of appropriation has become, if not accepted, at least kind of normalized.

JAYes. We now understand, in retrospect, how these migrations have always been in the mix. What threw us a curveball were statements that seemed to be okay on the surface, like when Wim Wenders said cinema’s color-lines are unconscious. People took that to mean cinema as we know it—twenty-four-frames-per-second projections, narrative, stars, and so on. Of course, anyone who’s ever been involved with that, whether they are American or Indian or Chinese, was drawing from all these other spaces. Whether it’s Gregg Toland, or Chris Doyle, or that fantastic Zen master who shot all of Edward Yang’s films, these cinematographers are absolutely open to questions of form that were clearly migrated from elsewhere. In other words, they are not simply learning, practicing, and dialoguing with cinema but with all manner of other references.

SDEven in the most mainstream cinema, I don’t think I’ve ever met a DP who hasn’t been looking very broadly at different references to inform and develop their palette.

JAExactly. I’m referencing the DPs because it’s much easier to see that at work. Of course, you could also talk about all the other departments: art, costumes—

SD—as well as the shifting of theatrical space, high-fracturing or camp or baroque.

JAThe cinema I came out of—the Structural avant-garde and the political avant-garde—basically foregrounded something that was the norm. You couldn’t look at a Brakhage without thinking about questions of the painterly. But Jack Cardiff had been thinking about that in the ’30s. (laughter)

SDNone of us are onto something particularly radical or revolutionary.

JANot any more than Michael Powell or people back then. But what that initiation did was remind me of the cross-pollination that comes with being broadly exposed to different artworks.

SDOne of the things I want to talk about is otherness and sexuality. There’s the story of you screening Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane in college and the riotous backlash you got, particularly from your colleagues of color who seemed to wonder, What are you doing with the homoerotics and the baroque?

JAIn the ’80s, I ran a film society with a group of other interested black film folk at our college in East London. We screened a whole range of what would now be called art cinema. At that time, it seemed to me that the tale wouldn’t be complete without Jarman. I had seen Sebastiane and was struck by both its formal daring and political rhetoric. You just couldn’t get past it. It was a play of sexuality. All the characters in the film, including the Roman soldiers, were presented in that “sexualized” way. So I wanted to share it. Now, why would a black kid at that time want that to be part of the palette? I can’t tell you, but I felt very strongly it could and should be. And it literally started a riot because the mission then was to immerse ourselves in other black art. But I said, and so did other black students, “We need to widen. We can’t just watch our own stuff!”

We had anticipated the backlash, so we sat there and talked our way through it. What’s really clear in my mind, and it’s the same today as back then, is that we need to start the conversation. We can change people’s minds, we can get them to look at things—if we provide and prepare for the dialogue.

SDIt makes me chuckle because in the ’90s most of my friends were of almost overly masculine African, Afro-Caribbean, or Moroccan descent. And I was the one person who was disrupting the canon, so to speak, introducing a sort of camp aesthetic, just in social terms. I’ve always felt that one of the keys for solidarity is to understand that not every mode of otherness is the same, but that there’s a relationship in the condition of othering that is best served, or best responded to, collectively or collaboratively.

JAI’m glad you raise the shattering, almost overwhelming presence of Michel Foucault in this because many of us, I suspect, learned and understood the complex operations of power through his writing. He made me realize—not that I needed much persuasion as a person of color—that the narrow definition of class was a problem. Coming across Derrida and then Foucault, right when I came out of college and started to work, I knew that we needed to think differently about the operations of power.

So the embrace of polymorphia as an organizing trope was a necessary leap into freedom. It felt better once you knew you were not the only one in this boat—as weird as that might sound. (laughter) This boat of strangeness didn’t only include people of color but people of different sexual persuasions and gender identities, and the minute I recognized what was being said with that, I felt incredibly liberated. Now everybody calls it identity politics, but it didn’t feel like that at the time.

SDI must say, although I can understand some of the criticism, that sort of pulling the rug out from under identity politics and multiculturalism so they fell from grace seemed to me another action of power reasserting itself. I do sometimes feel a sadness when I see the kind of atomized discourse that we have now in the name of freedom. Everyone is free in their absolute and abject minority. I miss those bonds of solidarity that, as you say, created and challenged orthodoxies within different minority territories.

JAIt’s interesting looking back at the extent to which many of those struggles started to fissure in ways that were beyond us as the speck of the new liberal became the only possibility. For instance, in the very early ’80s, we had these arguments and debates in the London Film-makers’ Co-op and they involved a whole range of different people. You had the people who said, “We’re just filmmakers.” You had the feminist versions, both political and aesthetic and so on. We didn’t all agree, but that was precisely the point. We had to ask, “What constitutes independent practice? What gets in the way and what needs help?” We were never going to come up with a resolution for everybody. In fact, the debate was about avoiding precisely that—the notion that there was only one part. But we held it together as a very transparent conversation. By the late ’80s, it was all gone, as if the very existence of the debate within a wider body was problematic because you could be seen as a block. Whereas, when you went off your separate ways—to make black film, gay film, queer film—in retrospect it felt almost easier. (laughter)

SDIt’s less troubling than the precarious solidarity.

JAIndeed. And it was the same with the debate inside the Marxist parties of the time. People couldn’t seem to see the century or the grand narrative. That would have actually helped everybody, and the grand narrative itself. (laughter) You could go from a meeting at the London Film-Maker’s Co-op to the central committee of the Socialist Workers Party and it would be the same debate: Can we change the terms of how we operate? It’s not working for all of us. And if we change that, what would we be?

SDAnd what would we put on the badges?

JAThese were the complexities and precarities of solidarity. I don’t want to romanticize it because it was difficult.

SDWhen human beings are involved, it always is.

Vertigo Sea

Installation views of Vertigo Sea, 2015, three-channel HD video installation, 7.1 sound, 48 minutes 30 seconds.

JATell me about it, dude. As I was saying before, people like Foucault, and later on Judith Butler, Paul Gilmore—there’s a whole bunch of them—told us, “Okay, just think about the way you operate vis-à-vis others slightly differently. If you do, it will be all for the good.” And I still believe that.

SDI’m with you. I read Foucault’s essay “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” again and again. And Derrida’s Aporias, on the idea of the border as being precarious as soon as it is traced. It’s like with Kafka, people often miss the humor in Derrida. I actually laugh aloud reading Derrida, which might make me a minority of one.

JA(laughter) And the profound productivity of Derrida! He just seemed to churn out so much across such diverse fields. I’ve got three shelves full of his books and that’s more than anybody I’ve got in this room.

Generally, we tended to not disagree with him. The only time I disagreed with him—and it stopped me from reading him for about a year—was when he launched this ferocious attack on Gayatri Spivak. In that moment, he seemed to have lost his agility and nimbleness. He didn’t understand that, for many of us, the reason we came to him was because of her—through Spivak’s translation of On Grammatology. She may have gotten it wrong, she may have not been the right translator for his stuff, but you know what, she got a whole army behind her, especially people like me. I knew Spivak first, not Derrida. When we saw her name, we knew it was something important. It’s literally how I picked up my first book by Derrida, On Grammatology, which I read in Spivak’s translation in 1981. So he seemed slightly ungrateful to her.

SDIt was also a bit of a misunderstanding, I think.

JAFor sure. But the misunderstanding seemed to rest on the idea that she had imported these “impurities” into his book.

SDI saw humor in that as well. Derrida’s critique was that she’s human, like the rest of us. He talks about syntax as a line being threaded from a demarcation. The majority thought that he had crossed the line. The irony of that wasn’t lost on me.

Coming from what you said about Derrida’s flexibility and inflexibility, I want to talk about your own flexibility. Your ability to play loose—and this is a compliment—by moving through many different formats and structures, and also to bring things back, like your use of tape-slide montage from the early days that started coming back in the ’90s.

JAThe tape-slide projects with the Black Audio Film Collective were my film and art school. Essentially, a group of us, six people, decided that we would make this series called “expeditions,” and that these would be “semiotic” investigations of race and national identity. We started off in the way most people do, sort of crude and straightforward, then we migrated and got very broken down as we became aware that this is basically terra incognita, new land. You could pretty much do what you wanted. So that meant calligraphic and photographic investigations; it meant cataloging archival material; it meant learning how to read music, so we could compose our own. It became a really, really big thing for what was supposed to be a part-time project. And we spent four years, between ’82 and ’86, doing this.

We read every essay or article by Sergei Eisenstein we could get because it seemed to point us where we had to go. We understood that a mixed economy, metaphorically, was an organizing trope for the practice. We understood the qualification of montage, which is what you refer to as flexibility.

We were doing something new, but also a lot of it was up in the air. In a way, we were mimicking a whole set of post-punk gestures by people who were just a little bit older than us. It didn’t seem unusual to organize and get a practice going, to have your fingers in all sorts of pies and to remain flexible about what each one can do. It didn’t feel unusual to realize that you could use both a compact and an optical printer for cropping and framing, and then migrate that practice to make a moving image. The work I saw that you’ve been doing, is also basically projecting slides and refilming them. All of that.

SDIt’s nice to hear you say that because it has felt very much like an apprenticeship. I was aware of what you guys and other people had been doing. Studying at Central Saint Martins, I was one of the last people to ever mess with a tape-slide machine. That experience still serves me well in terms of multimedia montage and what many people have claimed and coined “refilmed film.”

JAMontage became an ethic by which we organized the work. It was that old dream of controlling everything, and the tape-slides helped us organize the nature of our demands. When the work left the studio, it was a complete production and we had done all of it ourselves. This empowered me to go to the Technicolor lab and say, “When I give you this thing with a double 85 filter, I don’t want you to correct it.” Someone would take the film and say, “That’s not correctly exposed!” And I’d say, “No, it’s meant to be underexposed.” But I also knew there was a certain hierarchy that we were slotting into. Our 16mms went into the same bath with these commercials, all 500,000 feet of them. (laughter)

SDDo you feel that, in your most recent projects, there’s still an echo of that sort of wisdom and knowing, and holding your own intention?

JABasically, making tape-slides taught me the value of unintended consequences. (laughter) You put your film in your camera and went out with the best intentions and shot all this stuff out in the world. But it never came out quite the way you saw it, and you had to respond to that. That’s still very important to me. I’m attached to the kind of voodoo aesthetic of the unintended, the way in which things have their own ontology, their own will. The work is sort of talking back to you: “This is what you wanted, but this is what I’m offering you.” (laughter) It suggests other possibilities.

I’m not a film person in the sense that I’m attached to rhythms or movements being right. I’m not perturbed by an actor’s accent or someone walking away from the scene. I can work with what they’re giving me.

SDI like that sort of invocation of risk capital. It’s an aesthetic otherness or othering. I always think of risk capital as a nice antithetical response to more liberal capital. Risk keeps things fresh and open to transformation.

JAI think risk capital, in that sense, has investments in the recyclability of moments. We’re both involved in practices meant to be organized by notions of perfection and correct choices—essentially everything that the moving image was supposed to not be. It’s not painting and was never meant to be.

The moment I read Benjamin’s “On the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” I thought, Oh, original, perfect, one-off—these are not necessarily organizing categories I need to worry about. For me, it was really about migrating some of these post-Benjaminian ideas into a practice—not as an anxiety or a fear but as a strength: We are not a one-off. Get over it. (laughter)

SDI was interested in the structure of film before I made one myself. I started out with painting and performance around the subject of film, and then, through a series of accidents and to make it about something other than performance, I started making film. I’ve always had a resistance to over-determination. I prefer to play with the risk of making the most complicated shot with a slider and pan, and do it in one take only. There’s a kind of positive anxiety that comes up.

JAThere was something that united all the filmmakers I liked—Alexander Kluge, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, and Godard. They all stumbled onto something while attempting to do something else. (laughter) Or Orson Welles, who failed miserably and landed in that other space.

SDThat accidental sort of slapstick space.

JAA kind of failed-apprentice space. I really when there’s a quality of imperfection. Whether you’re watching Jean Vigo or Godard, there’s this sense that they were both trying to compete with John Ford and failed. (laughter) They ended up with other things. I’m trying to learn from that.

SDLooking back at François Truffaut and how slapstick some of the films are, there’s a comedy that’s half intended and half unintended, and that’s through the economy of means and trying to be grown up at the same time.

JAOne thing that should’ve been obvious but that we didn’t realize is these films were made by very young people. Godard and Truffaut were in their twenties doing this stuff. But because we receive their work after the fact, like the Godard from the past, it inevitably feels like it’s being made by sages, wise old men or something. You miss that sense of youthful daring, the wandering in the forest of the unknown. The unknown being their own time.

SDThey were making it up. How do you manage to keep up that spirit of the “film without guarantee” as you have been evolving and getting more sophisticated?

JA In part by this endless migration. Whether it’s the cinema world or TV or the gallery space, you become aware of their strictures, their prescriptions—the limits of the particular platforms. And when they can’t be overcome, it’s best to leave, to migrate. (laughter) Being aware of the prohibitions is one thing because then you know roughly what it is that you’re playing with and what you’re trying to avoid. Whether you succeed or not is another matter. At least you know what’s at stake. It’s also a temperamental question, there are people who need to find that line, that rigor, and need to stay on it because in staying on it they can refine it.

I’m not that interested in the straight line. It doesn’t do much for me. In any genre or artform, it’s not my thing. One of my favorite musical forms is an ancient Indian dhrupad. In dhrupad you really try not to hit a note, that’s the important thing. You have to dance with it, stretch it, put it up, put it down. I’m also quite happy to hear Schubert’s Winterreise, but if I had to choose, I would do the dhrupad all the time because I don’t like straight lines.

SDIt’s always nice to remember that circles are equally if not more important than straight lines in terms of structure, because of the obvious loops they bring about in music and elsewhere. Migration again.

We’ve both worked with climate and migration a lot. I’m thinking of your films The Nine Muses (2010) and Vertigo Sea (2015). I’m curious about the structure of each. Particularly, I’m interested in the counterpoint of the black figure in the Alaskan wilderness and the archive material of black and South Asian migrants arriving in Britain because that has a personal reference for me too.

JAEach started with a documentary or nonfiction text. With The Nine Muses, I could only arrive at that form because of the previous work I’d done on television and with my documentary films. I don’t know how many people I interviewed from that immigrant generation: 1949 to 1967.

SDIt has this particular topicality in the current moment.

JAOne of the things I remember from these interviews was that you could almost boil down what they said into three prototypes. And that became the organizing motif for The Nine Muses. First, people always said, “When we got here, it was really cold.” Whether they came in December or July, whether they said it in Urdu or Jamaican Patois, they weren’t talking about the climate or temperature. Second, they usually stressed the fact that they felt alone during the journey itself, even when they were together on boats or, if they were lucky, in planes. Being with others didn’t seem to dislodge that sense of isolation. They also spoke of a sense of shame about being too loud and sartorial. “We were very bright and people stared at us.” They were coming to austerity, a place where only three colors were prescribed—gray, blue, and black. They felt they didn’t match, they embodied difference in the place they had arrived in. Those were the three ethnographic motifs we decided to work with and had to find semiotic equipment for.

It was equally simple with Vertigo Sea—I was having a conversation with a scientist about climate change and we spoke about the rising levels of water. That was the spark and that’s what took hold. Everything else is a fleshing out of that detail. Basically, I sit down and I’m struck, usually by the forcefulness of an ethnographic detail, and that becomes the basis of a project’s whole edifice.

SDAnd sometimes it’s just a matter of standing back and allowing the space to become itself.

JAI’m usually pushed by a range of ambitions, ideas, ideals, and possibilities. I’m never in just one space at a time. So the compelling push of “I’m going to do this” has to have a catalyst. It has to be animated from somewhere else, somewhere other than my head.

SDI remember from a previous conversation that if an idea’s not coming from at least three different directions, you’re almost suspicious of it.

JA There you go. It’s almost a default defense mechanism against the rot, the bloated excess of self-regard. I’m not arrogant enough to think that every thing going on in my head has value or importance, but when it comes into conversation with something or someone else, that’s where the rock ’n’ roll starts.

The New Museum will present John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire from 6/20/18- 9/02/18.

Shezad Dawood is a London-based artist working across film, painting, and sculpture. His works have been exhibited widely in the UK, including Whitechapel Gallery, Tate Modern, and ICA, as well as internationally. His most recent solo show is A Lost Future at the Rubin Museum of Art.

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Originally published in

BOMB 144, Summer 2018

Featuring interviews with Chris Martin, Cy Gavin, Tauba Auerbach, Sam Hillmer, Amy Jenkins, Florian Meisenberg, John Akomfrah, Simone Forti, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Anna Moschovakis

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