Black visuality and the practice of refusal | Tina Campt
This essay is accompanied by Arthur Jafa’s playlist, Phonic Substance.
What constitutes a practice of refusal? This article engages the practice of refusal collaboratively articulated by the Practicing Refusal Collective, a group founded three years ago by myself and Saidiya Hartman. It does so by unpacking a series of keywords that, I argue, define the contours of an emergent black visuality that itself constitutes a practice of refusal as enacted by two contemporary artists who are creating radical modalities of witnessing that refuse authoritative forms of visuality which function to refuse blackness itself. Focusing on works by Arthur Jafa and Luke Willis Thompson, and viewing them through their use of critical optics of relationality and adjacency, the article explores the affective labor required by their respective cinematic practices and their capacity to engage negation as generative and radically transformative.
How do we write, think, perform, practice, visualize, engage, theorize, story, or enact a practice of refusal? In a multitude of ways, I feel like I’ve spent the last ten years thinking, writing, teaching and debating different versions of this protracted ensemble of questions. Like a jazz ensemble, the litany of verbs it assembles similarly jockey and vie with one another for attention. It is a shifting relation where each term takes a turn at occupying the foreground of our focus and attention, while sustaining a dialogue with those in the background to improvise a multitude of provisional answers and complex rejoinders to the question at the heart of its compelling query: what constitutes a practice of refusal?
In previous writings (Campt 2012, 2017), I explored this ensemble of questions in the realm of the visual by seeking to understand how photography, in particular, has created rich strategic terrain for practicing refusal within and among black communities in Europe, North America, and Africa. More recently, my thoughts on refusal have been profoundly shaped by an extended conversation with The Practicing Refusal Collective, a group convened in 2015 by myself and my friend, collaborator, and self-described “academic wife,” Saidiya Hartman.(1) Meeting twice a year since its formation, the ensemble question posed at the outset of this piece is the collaborative expression of the group’s desire to think through and toward refusal as a generative and capacious rubric for theorizing everyday practices of struggle often obscured by an emphasis on collective acts of resistance. For us, “practicing refusal” names the urgency of rethinking the time, space, and fundamental vocabulary of what constitutes politics, activism, and theory, as well as what it means to refuse the terms given to us to name these struggles.
This summer, I embarked on a writing project inspired by an extraordinary group of students in a seminar I taught for Columbia University’s Institute for Research on African-American Studies, “Practicing Refusal,” and the dynamic conversations of the Practicing Refusal Collective. “Black Visual Frequency: A Glossary” appeared as part of the Fotomuseum Winterthur’s ongoing blog series, Still Searching. (2) The glossary is a thought experiment that attempts to define the contemporary contours of what I see as an emergent black visuality that itself constitutes a practice of refusal. The glossary explores the practices of refusal enacted by black contemporary artists who create radical modalities of witnessing that refuse authoritative forms of visuality which function to refuse blackness itself. It is a practice that I characterize as neither utopic nor autonomous, and neither pessimistic nor futuristic. It functions instead through relationality and adjacency, and its power lies in its ability to engage negation as generative. On the occasion of this special issue of Women & Performance on Performing Refusal/Refusing to Perform, I would like to share two glossary entries that articulate what I see as crucial critical frameworks for theorizing the practice of refusal I call black visuality.
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.
I’m writing this quite literally on the move, or as my father fondly describes it, I am working while “galavanting.” The thoughts I assemble here are transcribed in Dublin from an afternoon spent in a café in Paris, directly facing the marvelous polyglot that is Belleville Park. From my perch at a café table next to a window overlooking the park, I spend an afternoon writing and being pleasantly distracted by an evolving scene of younger and older African men, women, and children orbiting what seemed to be a very special bench. 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, for despite the obvious banter that passed between them was too far away for me to hear. And because my spoken French (despite seven diligent years of high school and college study) is nearly nonexistent, for me more generally, Paris is an unusually quiet place that 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 sojourn in a Parisian café may seem like an oblique entry into the term that is the topic of this glossary entry: still-moving-images. But I must take the liberty of supplementing my definition of this term with that of phonic substance because it is an essential component of my conception of still-moving-images and their significance as a modality for representing black visuality. As I have written previously, 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 trans forms our encounters with black visuality through the slowing and stilling of moving images, and the animation, aspiration (3) 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, and 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: black-face 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.(4) 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 (Campt 2018). Apex anticipates this celebrated piece with an intensity and tenacity that in many ways exceeds its contemporary successor. 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. 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 consider 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. As the Harvard Dictionary of Music explains: “Frequency is the primary determinant of the listener’s perception of pitch.”
It 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 final paper for my spring 2018 seminar:
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, fade, then 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 more embodied and corporeal than visual. And the viewer instinctively responds in kind, albeit 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 Jafa’s stunning aspiration of still-moving-images in 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 this piece calibrates a visual frequency which 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” (Jafa 1992). 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.
refusal: a rejection of the status quo as livable and the creation of possibility in the face of negation i.e. a refusal to recognize a system that renders you fundamentally illegible and unintelligible; the decision to reject the terms of diminished subjecthood with which one is presented, using negation as a generative and creative source of disorderly power to embrace the possibility of living otherwise.
Much to my delight and relief, I’m finally home. After close to six weeks on the road, my travels have come to an end. But since returning to the welcoming embrace of my husband, friends, dog, cat, and assorted loved ones, I still find myself strangely unsettled. My restlessness is the leftover rumble in my head of encounters with so many new people, places, artworks, and perspectives that continue to reverberate in me from the 2018 Berlin Biennale, and the rich, thoughtful, and engaging space it created for an exceptional selection of talented emerging artists of color. One piece, in particular, inspired me to articulate one of the most important terms in this glossary. And while it articulates this term in powerful ways, my encounter with it was intensified by the fact that it occurred almost stereophonically, in a context where I became the unwitting apex of a triangulated duet that required me to listen differently to what I was seeing, and to hear its images as part of a broader chorus of black visuality.
The first day I visited the exhibition can be encapsulated in one word: sweltering. The temperature was in the upper 90s and since most of the buildings in Berlin do not have air conditioning, I climbed the stairs to the top floor of the KW (Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art) preparing myself for the inevitability of the fact that warm air rises and with projectors in the room, I should expect the worst. I hate heat and have hated it all my life. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the DC suburbs, a city built on swampland and well-known for its ferociously hot and humid summers. Perhaps it’s because my father is from North Carolina and seems impervious to heat and relentlessly policed our use of air conditioning for most of my youth. Regardless, when I reached the gallery at the top of the stairs, it was as hot as I’d anticipated and I was not in a good mood.
What hit me first was a wave of heat that hung like a velvet curtain. What hit me next was a wall of sound emanating from a massive projector at the center of the room. Its sizable scale dominated and intimidated visitors in the dark, cavernous space. Despite its imposing physical presence, its fullest impact was aural and sonic. Its aggressive and insistent drone was purposeful. It was a sound that amplified the silence of the image it projected and simultaneously engulfed. Yet either by intent or by accident, this dominating sonic presence had competition—competition that harmonized both awkwardly and beautifully in its adjacency and proximity.
Seeking to avoid the oppressive heat hanging like a cloud in the space I instinctively felt myself move to the coolest part of the room: the floor; initially in an uncomfortable crouch, and then to a more comfortable seat against a side wall. It was a wall that led to another video installation—markedly different but utterly complementary. To access one required passing through the other; more importantly, the entry to the second, although shrouded by heavy black drapes, still allowed the sound of the film to filter into the quiet but fulsome sonic experience of its neighbor.
The image on the screen is a young black woman with long braids resting on shoulders clad in white by a tee shirt. Just below her cropped sleeve, her arm provides the only hint of identification through the tattoo it reveals: “Philando.” The grainy black and white composition of her celluloid figuration gives heightened definition to the sheen of her face, the texture of her skin, and the taut weave of her plaits. Her movements are minimal as her initial photographic stillness transforms slowly into subtle, gentle, and affecting motion. Chin held high looking upward; chin bowed with eyes cast downward; glasses skimming abundant eyelashes; absent glasses reveal soulful eyes. A wistful smile shifts to a mournful look. She mouths silent words, blinking regularly. Ebbing side-to-side, adjusting in her seat, nodding occasionally, followed by an effortful, exhausted in- and exhale. A prayer, a meditation or an internal monologue made manifest?
While the film itself is silent, its visuality is permeated by sound as the rhythmic monotone of the projector suffuses the space with a rapid mechanical clacking. Yet through the bleed of the soundtrack of the adjacent film into the space, the persistent clacking commingles with the hum of a black woman’s voice rising to the chorus of a gospel anthem, the swell of an organ, and the soundtrack of black feminist insurgency. As the figure on the screen lifts her head to cast eyes upward, I hear the refrain of “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” in the background, challenging the relentless metronome of the projector.
Autoportrait (2017) by Luke Willis Thompson is a silent portrait of Diamond Reynolds, whose live Facebook broadcast of the murder of her partner Philando Castile by officer Jeronimo Yanez in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, offered a chilling account of one of a seemingly endless series of brutal killings of innocent black men and women at the hands of US law enforcement. Comprised of two four-minute takes of Reynolds filmed in April 2017 in Minnesota and shot in 35 mm Kodak Double-X black-and-white film, Autoportrait is irreproducible without consent, as it exists offline without a digital equivalent. It must be viewed in the context for which it was created: a darkened room that demands complete immersion and attentiveness. Bridging the gap between still and moving images, Autoportrait was awarded the 2018 Deutsche Börse Prize for photography.
Thompson’s sensuous piece has been celebrated and rebuked. Hailed, on the one hand, as an elegiac reclamation of its subject’s strength, dignity and humanity; on the other hand, it has been the target of withering attack since Thompson’s nomination for the 2018 Turner Prize, by critics who view it as an aestheticization of black trauma. Equating it with Dana Schutz’s controversial Open Casket and citing Hannah Black’s powerful warning penned her Open Letter written in response to the piece that “non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material.” As writer Nick Scammell on the photography website ASX contends, “Reynolds is known because she refused to be silenced. Yet Autoportrait sees her both speechless and distanced into black and white film...Detached. Disconnected. Inert.”
As a New Zealander of Fijian heritage, Thompson has described himself as a black artist, albeit not of the African Diaspora. It is an attribution I believe we must take seriously as positioning him in a place of adjacency rather than identity with the forms of anti-black violence his piece so poignantly evokes. It is the adjacency of indigeneity and diasporic formation linked by a vicious history of imperialism and colonization that tethers black subjects to Pacific Islanders. It is the adjacency of the sonic bleed I experienced in the sublime placement of Autoportrait in close proximity to the film screened behind the dark drapes: Simone Leigh’s ode to black feminist resistance and solidarity, Untitled (M*A*S*H) (2018), which visualizes a fictional order of black nurses operating on the frontlines of the Korean War. It is the adjacency of sitting next to your partner in a car and witnessing his murder, then attempting to talk down the officer who shot him, while capturing it on a cell phone, and broadcasting it live to the world to bear witness to both your loss and your refusal to silence his slaughter.
Autoportrait demands that we listen to the quiet image of Diamond Reynolds. As Scammell rightly asserts, Reynolds’ act of defiance was her refusal to remain silent. Autoportrait renders her neither speechless nor silent. In the carefully constructed, still-moving-image Thompson creates, he captures her articulating a devastating critique through a resounding frequency of quiet that wrests our undivided attention. This collaborative portrait of refusal—a refusal to be silenced or to accept the status of black disposability—is amplified by a refusal to accept words or speech as either adequate or commensurate to the gravity of her loss or the monumentality of the crime of devalued black life. Autoportrait forces us to engage with a black woman who overwhelms us through her reserve, control, and containment. It forces us to reckon with the everyday labor that black women have mastered since captivity—carrying loss with dignity, mourning in plain sight, and at the same time, refusing to capitulate to the mundane regularity of black death.
Truth be told, a silent portrait of any black woman is categorically unbearable. Our refusal of words is inevitably embraced as an invitation to impose a narrative that we have neither authored nor authorized. Set against the backdrop of the story Diamond Reynolds refused not to tell—why do we demand to hear her tell it again? Why do we expect or demand her to repeat it or tell it differently? Why is this account of it, without words or speech, but in subtle gestures that have an affective power that exceeds words, not enough? Why is it so discomforting to have to listen to what we are seeing, and in doing so, to be accountable to the affective labor of connecting across her quiet to engage that which exceeds words? Might Thompson’s decision to strip down our quiet encounter with Diamond Reynolds (and by proxy, our encounter with Philando Castile and the murder that Reynolds allowed us to witness in its wake) to a monochromatic, quiet encounter with black death and black refusal to embrace the precarity of black life—might it in fact be utterly appropriate? If not, what script, words, speech, text would have been commensurate? Ultimately, the quiet, still-moving-image of Diamond Reynolds’ refusal to embrace silence is, to me, a powerful modality of reckoning with the impact of the ongoing war currently being waged against black bodies. It is a still-moving-image of refusal—a refusal to explain, a refusal to capitulate, a refusal to be anything else than who we are, even at the cost of death.
In addition to myself and Saidiya Hartman, our members include: Rizvana Bradley, Hazel Carby, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Kaiama Glover, Che Gossett, Philip Brian Harper, Maja Horn, Arthur Jafa, Monica Miller, Tavia Nyong’o, Christina Sharpe, Darieck Scott, Deborah A. Thomas, Alexander Weheliye, and Mabel Wilson. Since its initial meeting in 2015, the group has met twice annually under the sponsorship of the Barnard Center for Research on Women. In addition to day-long working group discussions, the group has hosted a series of public events including a lecture and seminar by Denise Ferreira da Silva, a screening and panel discussion on the work of Arthur Jafa at the International Center for Photography in New York, and book salons celebrating the publication of Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, and my own monograph, Listening To Images.
My 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.
Apex’s sibling was also on display in New York at Jafa’s 2018 show, “Air Above Mountains, Unknown Pleasures” at Gavin Brown Enterprises in Harlem. In this exhibition, 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 annotations included were the filenames used by the artist to catalogue them.
Campt, Tina. 2012. Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Campt, Tina. 2017. Listening To Images. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Campt, Tina. 2018. “The Visual Frequency of Black Life.” In Arthur Jafa: A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Galleries, London/Julia Stoschek Collection, Berlin, edited by Amira Gad and Joseph Constable, 33–41. Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König.
Jafa, Arthur. 1992. “69.” In Black Popular Culture: A Project by Michele Wallace, edited by Gina Dent, 249–54. Seattle: Bay Press.
Notes on Contributor
Tina Marie Campt is Claire Tow and Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Africana and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College-Columbia University. She is the author of three books: Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender and Memory in the Third Reich (2004), Image Matters: Archive, Photography and the African Diaspora in Europe (2012), and Listening to Images (2017). Currently in residence as Abigail Cohen Fellow at the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination in Paris, she is also a Research Associate at the Visual Identities in Art and Design at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.