"Decent people against all these motherfuckers destroying the world. That is a very straight forward message to me." – Arthur Jafa in conversation with Jörg Heiser

Transcript of the conversation between Arthur Jafa & Jörg Heiser
on February 12th at the Julia Stochek Collection, Berlin.


Arthur Jafa (A)
I’ve always collected pictures. I would just have my magazines and sketchbooks just in between the pages and the wardrobe. I laminated the pictures. That’s how you knew I was neurotic, because I was laminating the pictures so I could, you know, show them to people. But I didn’t like people putting their finger prints on them (laughter) so I always had this, you know, attraction, to push pull with it.

Jörg Heiser (J)
Was it always clear they would go without words?

J
Hm?

J
Was it always clear they would go without words? Words printed on the screen.

A
Without words?

J
Printed words.

A
I don’t think they ever went without words. As my best friend Greg Tate would often say “Have you seen the books, or have you gotten the tour of the books?”

J
That’s what I’m getting at…

A
Yeah. After ‚Daughters of the Dust‘, when Dana gave me that photo album, that was a bit of a leap, because it had never occurred to me to put them in a form where they could actually be presented that easily, you know, and I use those sort of albums for me to a various standard. What you see like this staples binder, you know, sleeves and they just made it much easier to show them to people and like I said the neurotic part of me is like, don’t mind the plastic, so that people won’t? put their fingerprints on them, so, there was this long period, where anybody who saw me I would always have those books in a backpack or something and I would be constantly showing them to people, and I think like to a certain degree just driven by a desire to compile things that I thought were cool and I mean it wasn’t really in terms of like I’m making an art album or anything.

Twenty years ago, Okwui Enwezor talked to me about showing my books, and I just thought, what a ridiculous idea. For me that was like going into a restaurant and saying to a chef ‚Hey man, I don’t want to eat your food, I just want to read your recipes.‘

You know, I always thought of it as just like recipes for things that I wanted to make and wasn’t in the position, or didn’t know how to make or you know just a way to sort of save ideas.

It’s very synthetic, you know the light mixes to me was always very simple. If you put this next to that you know you get a new thing.

(….)

J
Most of your work we encounter without a commentary.

A
That’s only because I don’t know how to speak Germam. Yeah.

J
But it also makes me think of that other important forming moment that you mentioned several times about watching ‚2001:Space Odyssey‘.

A
Yeah

J
Back in 1970 I believe?

A
When?

J
1970 was it?

A
Yeah, yeah, around 1970.

J
And one of the famous stories about film is that there was initially a voiceover commentary for like the first half of the movie.

A
Really?

J
Yes

A
I’ve never heard of this.

J
And Kubrick decided to erase that in order to let the images speak.

A
You know what that reminds me of? That reminds me of Prince’s „When Doves Cry“. Initially, they had a bass line in it (laughter), until at the last second he stripped the bass line out of it which is why it sounds so revolutionary even now cause it’s like he snatched the spine out of it but it was still standing even without a spine.

J
Yeah, there was apparently some kind of slightly Richard Attenborough kind of serious voice over about the function of the monolith..

A
Terrible idea.

J
It is.

A
I’m so happy I never saw that version of it.

J
Yeah, but maybe tell us a bit about that forming moment of you seeing that film

A
There’s no rhythm about it, dude. Basically I saw it in Clarksville, Mississippi, and it had a big impact on me. If you want the extended version this, the answer would be it was pretty dope, you know.

I can consider myself to a certain degree - temperamentally - something of a minimalist. It’s a very strange kind of minimalism, because it is maximalism at the same time. I’m like Miles Davis. One of the things about what was said about Miles was, that he established his sound creating different contexts for the itself over an almost forty years period. But I would always describe his sound as both austere and voluptuous, which is a really strange oxymoron.

Growing up in the Delta, Mississippi, it’s growing up in a very flat and austere environment and not only because it’s flat, but because it’s economically underdeveloped. It was, you know, the capital of cotton plantations. It might have a very fertile soil, but it’s a very austere environment. I think I grew up in austerity deprivation or whatever you want to call it, and for me, it was also an environment that was very charged with terror. I grew up within a fifty mile radius of some of the more horrific things that have happened in the 20th century, like the killing of Mississippi, the Civil Rights workers and all that shit.

By the time I was eight or nine years old, that stuff was kind of receding in the window; catastrophic violence directly towards black people was something that remained. I didn’t really experience that directly, but that kind of shit has a slight influence on life. Like, you know, growing up in Chernobyl or something, suffused by the environment. Even though my parents sort of insulated me and my brothers from more direct impulses, being from the black middle class, they were teachers and all, and they were very hardcore about protecting us. Think of being in Chernobyl after what happened and your parents force you to wear hazmat suites, but you can’t be entirely protected from radiation.

Ten years ago, my dad said that if he had daughters he would have gotten us out of here twenty years before he did. But I had only brothers and it was startling to me, because I was like „so what? We didn’t need to be protected!“ (laughs) But he said he had to, that it was it was a too sexual environment that we were like „us guys, we din’t need to be protected from that“. It did speak to me actually, even our own safety to this day. If I ever want to right memoirs or something, they are going to be darf and lovely. My childhood was a little bit like ‚The Brady Bunch‘ and ‚The Color Purple‘.

J
You talked about how these horrific terrible crimes against humanity from which your parents were protecting you, from something unspoken…

A
…psychic…

J
…something that’s like a gap or a void …

A
It’s psychic. When I talk about austerity and environment it’s like when I talk about minimalism as psychoanalytically charged kind of minimalism. When I last saw „2001: Space Odyssey“, it had something of an austere character, it was both too much for me to process and at the same time not enough there.

J
Well, there’s this whole story about Tony Smith’s black monoliths and the years leading up to the filming of Stanley Kubrick; his notion of minimal art was basically partly formed by him having experienced the Nazi rallies in Nuremberg, when he was a solider and when he was trying to somewhat come to terms with that vastness of space there and turn that into these austere monolithic black objects…

A
I’m sort of divided; a little bit. I just think that, on the surface, „2001:Space Odyssey“ doesn’t have anything to do with black people. It’s sort of prototypical in that sense of science fiction without any indication of black people existing in the future. There is no black people in these future visions. At the same time, „2001“ is clearly obsessed with blackness. Most specifically implementing monoliths, of course. Even the apes, you know. There’s no such thing as apes in American media that’s not about black people. And he (Stanley Kubrick) is just a Bronx Jew, you know, besides living in London for most of his life so and that’s in the 60’s. It’s just impossible not to use this analytically back brain, so I always thought that film, at the end of the day, is about white people being confronted with the vastness of the black universe and moving from one point of whiteness - a star - to another, but being confronted by all the blackness surrounding everything. The incredible anxiety that it produces, and how they basically follow this black artifact that provokes these evolutionary leaps from earth to the moon to somewhere out in Jupiter, and he just ends up in this Louis the 16th Rokoko bedroom and evolving to this white baby. But you know, it’s completely a fantasy.

J
Well, I mean the level of progression is quiet impressive. If you look it that way, I mean, it is really completely convincing what you say, but it is completely unacknowledged in the film itself, right?

A
It’s a great movie, because it’s about the suppressed actuality of itself, and so beautifully foregrounded. It’s science fiction where there’s blade runner coming down to black folks, because

white folks are the domestic alien, and we are the internal alien in the west. I mean, we are the illegitimate sons and daughters of the west, you know.

J
You were an avid, or are still, and avid reader of science fiction novels and earlier in our chat you talked about how in the early 1970s especially early to mid 1970s there was a new kind of science fiction, some kind of science fiction in that sense was completely at the opposite and of „Space Odyssey“

A
—Mhm...

J
—yes or no?

A
I don’t know if I would say so. One of the things about 2001 that makes it so rare as a science fiction film - and not as the idiot stepchild of science fiction literature - is the way it sorts all the technology, the spaceships and stuff, becoming background, letting it be fundamentally about not like technological advance or technological future but like new maladies, new psychological maladies. I mean, Hal has more emotions than any of the people in the film, like when Hal dies Hal cries but nobody else cries. Like people getting killed, all the people murdered and they’re like “Can you open the door Hal?”, you know, when he’s stuck outside the spaceship.

J
I mean it's really -

A
It's like - „Can you open the door Hal“? (With a soft, polite voice)

J
Indeed it’s striking like one of the two aspects…

A
He’s not like (screaming) “Open that fucking door Hal?!” You know what I mean?

J
Well, no. In the video in the first moment it struck, i mean we watched in our seminar recently and it struck us all how uncannily cool he remains of his.

A
He’s like Miles Davis.

J
There’s no show of any emotion even though his colleague has just been killed by Halo and he’s still talking to Halo in this very mechanical way. Yeah, I mean, it completely rhymes with what you just said. Jumping ahead to 1979, where I guess there is another registrar, another game changer in science fiction. I would like to show the famous 'Alien' scene, which on youtube is usually described as „the Last Supper“ which I find quiet apt for this conversation. You all know the scene of course but let’s see it again.

(Screening of the scene)

J
Um, well, Parker takes the knife, he knows exactly what he’s encountered to..

A
Yeah, exactly, that was very clear to me, even when I saw that in high school, which I was like „okay?!“:

While everybody else was pulling back, Parker had the knife in his hand and he goes like straight forward. As a matter of fact, the rest of the crew is actually holding him back as he takes the knife, but that’s because he knows, the alien - that’s a brother.

J
Well, there’s actually a point not long after that in the phone, where he’s one of the first to actually see the grown up alien while he talks to Ripley and the captain and all the other crew members who are still alive and he says “I’ve seen it, it’s big, and-” and he’s cut off by the captain speaking in a very modest way to him.

A
Right. Parker is like the person who - if logic would hold - would be the most likely to survive, because not only is he able recognize what is from the beginning the bad n+gga, so he is a kind of the good n+gga, but so he, he knows like that n+gga right there is trouble. Excuse my language, right?

So he’s going to be trouble and he’s the one who says let’s nuke this shit from orbit. Fuck all this dumb shit of trying to capture it, let’s just fly away, leave this shit, nuke this shit from orbit. And you know he gets overridden and uh it’s funny like the way he’s positioned in the film, because that’s how you know something is up. The person he’s normally in league with in the film is only Harry Dean Stanton.

J
Sort of the working class guy.

A
They’re the working class of the ship, because everybody else is more like sort of managing position, and they’re the guys who are down in the lower depths of the ship and they’re the ones who say..

J
Like in Titanic'

A
Yeah, exactly. We never get extras, we don’t get bonuses and all this kind of stuff, so they would seem to be the ones who would be, you know what I mean, have the least gain by extending themselves to try to capture the thing.

J

If we go back to „2001:Space Odyssey“ ten years before, what you got is a film that sort of becomes much more sort of, yeah well, explicit about these subtexts that stop to be subtexts now, but then again, it seems so obvious that film history writing and film criticism has sort of almost anxiously overlooked the obvious, it seems. Do you have an explanation for that.

A

You mean outside of white supremacy? Capitalism? Patriarchy and all?

J
Well that’s, that’s the short version, yeah.

A
Yeah, um not really.

J
Should we maybe see the famous final scene?

A
I mean, no. We were talking about it early if you have the opportunity to go down to see the show in the second, in the second uh screening there, there’s a piece at the very beginning of it that has a clip of a test, the first test shot of the alien and it’s basically Baloji, the guy who was in the alien suite, in underwear, literally, a big black guy, in black underwear, and a long plastic thing on this head walking around the ship. Now it sounds ludicrous, but it’s creepier than anything in the movie. It’s funny, but it’s true. You guys will see it downstairs, it’s like so freaky „Alien“ is the greatest monster in the history of cinema. Clearly the greatest monster of the 20th century.

J
And he first drew it explicitly with a big penis on it’s head.

A
Yeah, but it was a copy of an African statue that he had in his studio. There is this one HR Giger book that has a picture of the statue right with the face on the front of the handle and the penis on the back.

'Alien' is an African god, clearly.

J
Just before we see her sort of relaxing taking off a shirt.

A
Yeah she’s in her underwear

J
Yeah exactly, it’s basically a horror film trope you know the return of the monster that had seemed dead suddenly returning, rearing up.

A
But most of the time the monsters are not trying to rape the women. Like they do a lot of things to them, but they’re not trying to rape them. And this alien is raping people, like straight up. Men and women. In fact, it’s sort of made explicit that he’s raping women because the scene that I think is the most telling scene is the scene in which the character gets killed, because he has a flamethrower and they decided that they’re going to abandon the ship and the woman that was at the front table with him, white woman with the short hair, there’s a scene in which she goes, and she’s by herself, who the hell knows why you would be by yourself under these circumstances but whatever, she’s by herself.

J
Parker is nearby…

A
Parker is not nearby initially. She’s in outer space by herself and the alien is standing there over her like this and he comes in and he sees her and he has a flame thrower and he, even though he seems like, what I would call the most radically pragmatic person, all of a sudden he just looses his mind. Cause he should have just burned the alien right then and there, and hope that she escapes the fire, but he doesn’t do that he starts telling her to get out of the way “Get out of the way! Get out of the way!” Like this, right? And then he looses his mind and tries to jump in between her and the alien. It just makes no sense, even when I was in high school I was like ----- I mean, you’ve got a gun, somebody is about to be arrested, do you go and jump in between them and say … shit, that doesn’t make any sense, man. When he tried to jump in between the alien and her, the alien just does like this and his tail knocks him down. Big black tail -boom!- knocks him down. And then he takes his attention away from the woman for a second and goes to Parker, picks him up like this and their face-to-face and it sort of echoes early in the film the kind of moment when they’re face to face when he has a knife, and the people are holding him back and the alien looks at him for a second and those beautiful teeth come out and he, as I like to say, he invaginates him right -boom!- those teeth come out -boom!- he makes a hole in his face. I kind of saw it, when I was in high school, but I couldn’t stop that shit in one bet, so when I got a tape of Alien years later, the first thing I did was to slow that shit down at that scene and he definitely shot a hole in his head. You know -boom!- so you know, it fucks him in the face, throws him down, and goes back to the woman. And then there’s, I think this is the penultimate scene of the entire film. He’s standing over her and she’s all (scared noises) you know uhhhh like this and then you see his tail go down on the floor and it slides on the floor like this, turned up, goes between her legs and goes up like that under her and they cut away and you hear ripely listening to her have an orgasm on the radio. And that’s it. So I was like yeah nobodies getting the fuck out of here alive, I’m sorry.

J
Well there’s the whole story about Ridley Scott actually mentioning in interviews that he was inspired by Leni Riefenstahl...

A
Right, that makes sense.

J
So there was a kind of conscious construction of that figure…

A
Is that conscious…?

J
Well, conscious in the sense that, it wasn’t sort of the way you described it with Kubrick, where it was more of an unconscious suppressed forming of the film’s narrative language, where here it becomes a sort of purposefully registered and incorporated trope

A
I think it has something to do with him being British. I really do think it has something to do with it, because the British thing is really interesting to me as a Black American. I mean yo, nobody is trying to fuck with me in the US. I just got picked off a heap and said hey wanna show this thing you made but it doesn’t escape me that Gavin Brown is British and Ridley Scott is British, you know. Otherwise I wouldn’t have an art career, man.

Before I got any of this information I was like “that is a black dude” “that alien is a black dude. that’s clear” and so years later when I heard that the cats name that there was a black dude in the suite and his name was Baloji, I just thought, fuck, you can’t even make this shit up, man! And then I really started seeing him walking in the street. That’s how I knew why black people can’t get work in movies now, well I guess black panther is out now, but you know what I mean. That’s not an accident. I’m sorry. I’m sure he saw him and said “That’s my alien right there”.

It’s not just that he sees an African guy who is tall, who actually was an art student. I mean, he’s like you know, he wasn’t a migrant or nothing like that. He was from a bubbly middle class family but he sees this guy. Now I gotta collapse him, in a pub, yeah, I gotta collapse him, with this figure. - Boom! - that’s why that monster is the most psychoanalytically charged monster in the history of cinema. I identify with that monster. A lot. Not the rape part, excuse me. But the impregnating part, yes I do. I want people to be willfully impregnated.

J
When you started working as a cinematographer and also developed your artwork, a term came from the early 90s: “black visual intonation”, BBI. Was that coming out of all these readings?

A
No.

J
No?

A
Where is it coming out of? It is coming out of my exposure to Hila Grima, Charles Brunette and all those guys from the so called LA Rebellion black indie film movement in the late 70s and stuff, and coming out of my own sort of obsession with how do you make a thing different IE black, you know.

I studied architecture at Howard University and at the time, and I’ve said this before, I had the same obsessions that I do now, but I wouldn’t have articulated them like I do now. It was more out of a blind articulation. I would have said something like if „Kind of Blue by Miles Davis was a house, what would it look like?” Or “If Electric Lady Land was a house, what would it look like?” or any great record album what would it look like, you know, assuming, or there’s a kind of understood difference you know, that’s at play with black music so, it’s just that, you know, I never practiced architecture because I just couldn’t see how I was actually going to be in a position to actualize the things that were in my head. I remember telling my dad I always wanted to be an architect, I’d play with Lincoln logs and Lego blocks at three years old, so I always wanted to be an architect. So they were startled when I said I didn’t want to do this, you know. and I remember telling my dad I think I’d rather be a failed filmmaker than a failed architect. And then I proceeded to be a failed filmmaker.

J
Does that maybe also point to the fact that the idea of a black people intonation also deals with space time? With a sense that time that is non-linear?

A
For sure, but this came mostly from mentors and teachers saying we need to make black cinema. That was a startling conception for an 18 year old like me and I thought, „yeah that’s a radical idea“; „This is not Hollywood“. And I was like “Wow, this is intense, it’s not Hollywood”. But at the same time, I was like,

„Not-Hollywood. What is that?“ And it became clear to me that they had a sense of it but their ability to articulate was largely polemical. I remember reading this essay by Steven Henderson, who was a really famous Black Arts Movement literary critic and one of the first people saying these polemical responses to these challenges of ideas, about actualizing black aesthetics and literature, wherever there are not enough formal responses to it. And he started suggesting saturation; he started coming up with different terms to try to articulate something more concrete than ’It’s black’. After reading him it was clear to me that ‚Not-Hollywood‘ was not a sufficient answer, because it is just put black cinema, this hypothetical black cinema, as a binary opposition to Hollywood. So if Hollywood was narrative, than Black Cinema would be what non narrative? If Hollywood was in color Black Cinema would be in what, Black and White? That sounds absurd now, but these are the kind of conversations of the time. I heard people say ‚black cinema‘ had to be in black and white because that was more revolutionary and everything that was in Hollywood. But I thought that was sort of absurd. But I kind of was like very much alone thinking how does shit really look like. And then I went to my fallback.

This became my fallback from my career to turn to music, because music was the one space where Black Americans in particular and white people and Americans in general had more fully actualized the aesthetic implications of where we found ourselves in the west. It’s mechanical. Like black music. One of the defining aspects of white music is its different altered tonal ideas related to the proportion of scale. Do ray me fa so la ti do. Okay. And so, you know, black music is like, it uses what’s called just intonation, and I remember reading like early on this accounting of a missionary who was in Africa like in the 16th century and he was a musicologist that was he was a missionary but he had been trained as what you would call a musicologist and he said

The problem with studying the work of the negros is they have a tendency ‚to word the note and by word the note‘. And by ‚word the note‘ he meant that these notes they were producing couldn’t be properly notated by western notational systems. Just like music from India too, microtones and stuff, just fell outside of notational system, right.

J
Tone is not an object; it’s a process.

A
Yeah it’s not really a note. It’s like in the Wests’ notes—I’m talking in classical terms, cause there are exceptions to everything everywhere, okay—but in classical terms in the West notes are inherently stable sonic phenomenon. And in many places not in the west that is not true, certainly not true in most places in Africa where notes are in flux. So you know as a classic example of people obsessed with Charlie Parker’s improvisations and recording him and notating him and trying to play them back. It wasn’t Charlie Parker’s solos, and then people were perplexed by that. But it is what it is. The only way to explain is this notational system can account for everything that was going on in the actual solo in real time. So you got the notes right and the sequence of the notes right, that doesn’t mean that you captured everything that made those solos work in real time—like as phenomenon.

It’s like saying you took the highest resolution photo of a building, right? Perfectly to scale and every things perfect but you don’t understand beams and pillars and rivets. So even if you get the beams and everything right, but you don’t understand what a rivet is, it should all fall apart. So there are all kinds of things about things that Charlie Parker’s doing which, really mostly based on conversations. I’ve been very much talking about jazz, you know, and he’s a master. It’s just like when Bern hit a note, it wasn’t just that that note was in flux but he created series of, I don’t know how you say it in German. Like in tennis, if you hit the under spin on a ball, the ball will bounce like this, so if you put topspin on a ball it’ll—like that? Or you throw a curve ball and do it like this and the ball will curve in space?

A
lot of what Bern was doing was putting a series of like—Bern slurring a bit of notes around there’s a crazy gravitational filler around the notes so those notes hold together to your ear in a way that they won’t hold together if you round them off to the perfect note that they would be in a diatonic scale they don’t hold together. So it seemed to me that there was a direct equivalent between that and popular pieces of cinema that was just like real straight forward so all black intonation was say—Charlie Chaplin, who is great. D.W. Griffin was a monster, but artistically he was great. You could read the notes of the cinematographers—and it’s all there. They were cranking the cameras and they had real rules about what a properly cranked image was supposed to do, and they all had their own different temperaments. Billy Bitzer who worked with D.W. Griffin, they called him the Iron Horse and he used to whistle to the Marseillaise when he cranked the camera. What he was known for was being able to crank it stably, keeping a very consistent rhythm, right? So that ends up defining much of the character of the movement. I’m not even talking about narrative, just movement in DW Griffin’s films versus Charlie Chaplin who, with Rollie Totheroh, would take the thing much more supple. He knew that if Chaplin was making a move in front of camera, if he over cranked higher than the projection, which was twenty-four frames per second, it would slow down his movement. Like when you played it back it would make the movement more languid.

But he has a lot of things when he goes from over-cranking to under-cranking so one of the things that you see in Chaplin’s films is this move on the spot, it’s like micro-movements micro-ramping between accelerated movement and then lyrical movement, right? People think that—and I’ve said this before, too— that hand cranked cameras where there and then the motorized camera came in and people were like phew, we couldn’t wait to get all this cranking we’re having to do, now we could hit a button. But it wasn’t like that. It took 20 years for motorized cameras to displace hand-cranked cameras and if it hadn’t been for sound coming in, it never would have happened anyway because they had developed into this really incredible art form but when the um sound came in the engineer stepped in and said in order to achieve perfect synch it had to be a metronome camera. So that’s why the camera actually did eventually move the motorized camera cranked out so all of a sudden you have this metronomic capture-like exposure interval like the interval the spaces between the exposure became metronomic. And that’s weird because, on one hand, you can attribute to just industrialization quote on quote “progress” or you can say it’s to western imperative. It’s hard to say which it is, you know.

J
Maybe that time itself becomes...

A
..plastic.

J
Becomes something that in a in a kind of classic modernist–progressivism is something that marches forward into the future in a very metronomic way like you just described. Whereas it’s that kind of black visual intonation that you’re after is something that is much more fluid and kind of slows down and speeds up.

A
Right.

J
There’s a book by Michelle M. Wright called, “The Physics of Blackness Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology,” and in it she talks precisely about this whole idea of progressive linear narratives of modernity, and how they should be counted by a model of history and time as much more sort of about the way you can switch your or sort of use simultaneously in different historic and futurist (traumatic) tradition ultra modern experience. At some point she mentions the writings of James Baldwin activating the term “Quantum multi-dimensional blackness”. That term strucked me, as something that directly deals with physicality of time and space, rather than merely being an allegory about it or something. Does it go in the right direction?

A
I would say yes to all of that.

If something is really working, it should escape the gravitational field of our ability to be able to synopsize into it a intellectual formation. Which doesn’t mean that’s not what we do, and it’s exciting to do that. I love electronics being metaphors for things that explain what’s going on, but somebody was saying something to me just a week ago...and I was kind of—well, I’m very resistant to follow theories and trying to have my space in art, you know what I mean? People tend to make art that thus theory can explain. I’m more interested in things that I can’t explain, that really challenge me to explain why they’re working. You know, I can say “black visual intonation” or a bunch of other things right now, but that’s because I’ve been obsessed with thinking about things for thirty-something years that I couldn’t explain. I couldn’t find a language to explain them and I couldn’t explain them.

Do you know Jean-Louise Baudry’s “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematic Apparatus”? In cinema, which basically said none of this shit is happening, even when the scene is just purely technical, something like that that is all in alignment with some sort of deep restructured ideological imperative was critical for me. It had a direct implications in terms of the seeking of a black cinema—which really is not the seeking of a black cinema, which is why I started off talking about my architecture. It’s a seeking of a black value.

For the value of blackness as it is implemented or instantiated in various forms where they be architecture, music...I go to music, because that’s the one nobody can debate. Nobody. Since black music is the dominant cultural form since the 20th century, that’s indisputable. That’s like absolutely indisputable.

Like cinema? Right? And cinema, like architecture, is a space which black people by large were not allowed to practice because it’s capital intensive for one thing. So, that seems to me like—well then if you bring the black folks into cinema than that seems like that could be a lot of fun you know. The visual arts space is very interesting to me because it’s the last unrepentantly discriminating contexts. Shit, outside of Picasso, clearly Basquiat. People can argue about it all they want, now. Two years from now it wasn’t even going to be a debate.

Picasso and Basquiat: the two dominant painters of the 20th century. Indisputable. Right? Now, I don’t think that necessarily means they’re the greatest artists. I think Duchamp is the best. Me personally? I think everybody now is trying to figure out what’s on the other side of the ready-made. Because painting essentially ended in the 19th Century — that’s an old form. But then in the 20th century: the ready-made is the new shit. And everybody tries to figure out what’s on the other side of the horizon of the ready-made. Like, what do you do with that?

J
Including you?

A
Absolutely. Absolutely.

As a black person, I have a very particular kind of relationship to the ready-made, because black people were ready-mades already. I mean it sounds funny, but it’s true. They had a thing at the met around Kerry James Marshall and at a certain point I said “Why does Kerry misspell ‘mastery?’ Why he’s spell it like m-a-s-t-r-y?” What’s the whole trajectory of black people misspelling shit? How come Basquiat was always misspelling shit. He was the smartest person in the room. He spoke three languages fluently. That’s no accidental misspelling of Basquiat’s work. If you say we are slaves and then we aspire to be the other position that you can be in that conception amassing we say, well, shit; If the choice is either being slaves (which we don’t wanna be) or be the masters, like y’all, we don’t wanna be that!. So what other position—It’s like in S&M. The classic S&M there’s two positions to occupy: Top and Bottom. Slave and Master. You know what I mean? So the thing is like how do you find another position to occupy? So misspelling shit is about that. Because if we are not human and we aspire to be human, but the west defines what humanity is, than we don’t want to be that either. We were things when we came here. We were things who existed, in the classical sense, somewhere between subject and object.

I love, say, Mark Leckey’s refrigerator. In the green room. That’s an incredible masterpiece. It’s about basically—and I told this to Mark —it’s like things have feelings, too. It’s clearly about black people, you know? And that’s great to me. So my thing is like “What is on the other side of that?” and I’ve kind of sort of said this before too: African artifacts come into the West to catalyze everything. Picasso and the painters try to deal with the paneling implications of it. The initial paneling implications of it are spacial geospatial, so they do cubism which is essentially that. I mean, they look at those artifacts and they understand from a formal analysis these are things that are being seen from multiple vantages in space. Cézanne had pushed up on it. He made a really unstable visual stills in terms of vanishing point perspective, but he could never break off of axis. He always stayed on axis and his shit was vibrating like this. (shaking his hands in the air)

So when African art comes in, what happens is, this bottle is seen here, here and here simultaneously. And that’s all what cubism is, right? But it’s still curtailed by western events so it’s like here, here and here but fixed vantages. It’s multiple fixed vantages in space whereas in African art what you’re looking at; it’s not like multiple fixed vantages in space, you’re looking at mobile vantages in space. So it’s like looking at a thing like this (making a spiral form with his head and arms)—Right? If I do this in space - that’s black. Everybody knows that’s black. That’s indisputably black.

J
Sociability - sociality, is something that comes up in your work all the time and in many ways, in terms of editing of the work, in terms of this effective proximity—which by the way also reminded me of Freud’s definition of association because it talks about how the two kinds of association—that is his main subject in terms of understanding dream is allegorical relationship and actual physical relationship and how the two come together in what he describes as (don’t know what he says). I was thinking when you said there was intellectualism and then there’s this other level of physical knowledge—and I think Freud was trying to capture that in some way. And I maybe I’m saying that because I think there is a dream-like quality to a lot of your work. I feel. Not dream-like in the sense of a breezy dream, but in the sense that it creates a certain kind of sense in a way that is not about a linear narrative.

A
I would almost say more like nightmare-quality? I mean...

I think about the “dream thing“ — The dream as a term itself is so over, in terms of black-being in particular black American history and stuff. You know, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.” How come he’s so incessantly talking about the dream, the dream, the dream? To me i’s all about potentiality and I even have a term that I use sometimes—I say “black potention.” And black potention basically to me just speaks to potential between actualized and unactualized potentiality that is characteristic of black, being like, black misery is over-determined in the west.

For every Michael Jordan in the neighborhoods I grew up in, there’s ten other people who would say they were just ask good as Michael Jordan. I grew up with this kind of shit. It is like Paul Bunyan tales you know, you talking about Usain Bolt– my dad will be like “Yeah he was fast but I member Johnny you know Usain Bolt was racing and he was going through grocery stores and I ran you know and accidentally going to through grocery store.” I grew up with so many things like this, because there is a kind of trauma in the black community around this whole thing of not being allowed to do what you’re capable of, you know.

So when, people improvise and things like this are being said within the improvisation it’s all about that. Trying to move to that crux between being and non-being. A thing being brought the immersion thing between being and not. But none of these things can even be read like one way there’s always you know like improvisation is a philosophical gesture before it was a musical gesture. I mean you know. For a person for whom self-possession like with black people is the issue then you know being self determined because if you’re playing in public and you’re not playing script and composition if you’re making it up on the spot, you are being self-determined. You are the author in that moment. And that’s a radicle thing for a black person to be. To be actually making it up. Being self-determined. Demonstrating your self-determination in front of an audience, not a black audience in most instances, which is why Miles Davis put his back to the audience is even more radicle, you know. Cause it’s like saying “Imma fuck with your assumptions about who I am and I’m going to turn my back to you. That’s how bad I am.” You know? So all these things I think were kind of kind of at play you know simultaneously and um yeah.

J
There’s this one sentence in the film “What if America loved black people as much as it loves black culture?” That kind of sums it up. And then, there is Kanye West’s 'Ultralight Beam'. How did that all come together for you?

A
You mean the process of making the video? It was real straightforward. I got a job where I had to compile some archival footage to explore and they asked for something but wouldn’t even sell what it was going to be, and they decided they didn’t want it, but I had already been payed, so I was just sitting there in the editing room and I had actually—just like I do all the time—I just had a file full of things, and this was (a year and a half ago?), and it was just things around the sort of epidemic sort of catastrophic violence directed at black people, which because we had been some sort of tipping point in terms of cellphones, cameras and cellphones and stuff people, were documenting these things.

Like everybody else, I was being shook every other week about some footage. And I’m a bit of a vulcan in general. I don’t really...I don’t know if it’s like this from growing up - I don’t know what to attribute it to growing up in Mississippi or whatever, but I don’t get too phased by stuff in general. Which is, maybe I don’t know, maybe it’s from looking at „2001:Space Odyssey“ too many times, I don’t know. But in the event, that footage of the woman—when she’s getting arrested and her kids…—that just broke me. It snapped something in me and I was really perplexed by that. I got all this footage of people being, like literally being killed, and these sisters not going to get—you can tell is not going to get killed—but like in some ways, the violence that you see there is the violence that most black people experience. The catastrophic violence, the physical violence, is something that happens, too; but at the end of the day, to a small percentage of us—it’s about keeping us in line.

But the actual every day what they’d say, a micro-aggression, that’s what most of us experience. It’s a tsunami of micro-aggression.

It’s not like a drop here and there. It’s like you grow up with this constant bombardment of micro-aggression and you have to figure out how to achieve some sort of psychologically equilibrium in the face of it. So one place a lot of people retreat to in particularly black men in particular is cool. You know, just being cool. Which is really just pretending to be dead all ready. That’s all it is. You pretend to be dead so that they’ll stop trying to kill you. It’s like Rodney King. You know, they say they hit him like how many? 70-something times? Why’d they keep hitting him? And they’d say, “Well because he kept moving. He wouldn’t be cool.“ Things like that...

It’s like...I tend to be very flat around this kind of stuff in general... I would just feel like, as a personality, I was always the kind of personality if I had this primordial imagined scene where I’m walking down the boardwalk, and I look over and there’s a ship. And there’s a bunch of black people chained in it. Like what do you do? You just free walking on the boardwalk and you see people being reduced to things, do you stop? Some people would stop and try to fix that shit. I was never a person to stop. I was always a person who would look and just keep rolling. Because my thing was like, you can burn that ship down but you’ve gotta get to the shipyard and burn that shit down. And I just always felt like it required you to be somewhat dispassionate about it because if not this shit is so huge like white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, it’s so huge that you wanna try make structure difference. Not just, you know, you got shot fight a cop in the street. It doesn’t mean...it’s not anything wrong with that you know. But it’s just I tend to be very cool around these things and very unmoved by most of it. Even when I look at Love is the Message now, I feel nothing. I feel nothing. I felt like that for over a year. Nothing. People asked me “What did you feel?” Nothing. It’s like I’m a plumber looking at it and just seeing if it’s draining. When I look at it I jus see is this draining is that (?) doing it, or does it go in here? That’s how I feel. It’s shocking to me that I don’t feel anything. When I first sat down to assemble it-which I did in about 2 and a half hours, alright? 85-90% of it beginning of (the movie?) just fell into place. I don’t even feel like I made it, I feel like it made itself. I spent then 6 weeks after tinkering with it, you know what I mean? But I never cried. When I first put it together it brought me to tears and I never cried again. But that footage of the sister backing up with her kids—I cried when I saw that. I just cried. I guess it was just something about—it’s just hard for me to imagine someone shooting my mama down in the street but my son-—but it was something about that I recognized as like, “Yeah that’s that not only has happened, I’ve experienced that myself. I know people in my family have experienced that.”

It’s more stories than we can even tell. We’ve experienced that kind of stuff, and so it just something about that really effected me. But somebody told me one time years ago when I was in school—a friend of mine had said something like, “I feel like when I’m around you, I’m above it.” And I was like, what are you talking about? “I just feel like you’re just looking at me but you’re not feeling anything.” And I was always really troubled by that. And then there was this, I can’t remember who it was. It was a filmmaker from Mozambique. This was when I was at Howard. And he was showing this film and I don’t know how we got into this conversation but I said “Yeah, I’m a little troubled” and he said, “Look, let me tell you this. Do you know the myth of the griot” I said “I know what a griot is—you know oral story teller.” He said “But do you know the myth of the griot. How the griot came about?” And I said “Nah”, and he said

“Well basically it was two brothers who were taking this long epic quest. And they were taking this long epic quest and they were coming to the end and they had circled out of this incredible experience and they were coming back to the village. They were getting close to being home after years of being on the road. And they had a taxing experience. And they were getting close but one of the brothers realized ‘I’m not going to make it. I’m gonna die.’ From lack of eating. And so he told his brother who he didn’t want to hold up, he says, ‘Look I’m going to catch my breath and you just go on ahead and I’ll catch up with you later. I just need to catch my breath.’ Whatever, right? And his brother said, ‘Okay cool.’ So he kept walking and at a certain point he didn’t see his brother so he said, ‘I’m going to go back and see what’s up.’ So he walked back, saw his brother laying on the side of the road, and knew immediately what was happening was his brother was just going to die and didn’t want to hold him up. So what he did was he took a knife and he cut his own calf off. And he cooked it on the side of the road. And he took it to his brother and said ‘Look, look what I found. I found food.’ So his brother ate flesh. And he got his strength back and they hobbled on back to the village. People were happy to see them, greeted them and everything. And then, at a certain point as it is the myth, people saw the bleeding brother’s leg and they knew immediately what had happened. He had eaten his brothers flesh, right? So, they said at that moment the one that had eaten his brother’s flesh turned to his brother and said ‘From this point onwards me and my sons and daughters and their sons and daughters will always seem to praise you and your sons and yours daughters.“

And my man told me, he said, “So the point of the story is this: if you have a griot function, you will always be disconnected from what is happening around you.“

There’s a very complicated relationship between griots in the mythic poetic mythicists in a communicative (??). When griots die, they don’t even bury them with the rest of everyone else. They put them in trees and let the maggots eat them. Even though they are fundamental components of the culture understanding itself, it’s because the griots feed on the flesh of the people. They feed on the people’s experiences. And so he said, “You’ve got to get right with that. That’s that’s part of why you have this disconnectedness that people could always sense from you since you were a kid.” So I know, like if I see my brother catch on fire—like I saw my brother catch on fire. Yeah, I threw a blanket to him but I was also staring at the shit cause I had never seen no shit like a person catch on fire. You know? And I’ve just always been like that. So round this kind of stuff, I feel like whatever kind of internal circuit breaker I have, it was pushed to the limit in the thing kind of assembled itself somewhere out of that. But having now put it together, I don’t. You know they say surgeons should never operate on their own family, so. So I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t fucking know, man. All I know is I don’t feel nothing when I see it. I don’t wanna feel anything when I see it. I just don’t wanna feel anything.

J
But—I don’t I don’t know if that sounds corny to say—but to me it’s a kind of national monument for the lack of one. In the sense of commemoration and of acknowledgment. Public acknowledgment that doesn’t happen. Which is something that tries me all the time just the basic fact that there is black history month and there is a museum for African American history and culture…

A
Which is great actually, I might add. It’s amazing actually.

J
Yes, but there’s no acknowledgment on other not with that president anyway but I mean—

A
What president are you referring to?

J
Trump.

A
Yeah, but shit black lives matter came up on the eight years of Obama. That shit didn’t come up on the year of Trump.

J
Yeah.

A
Like, I’m saying for real, people are operating these fucking fantasies, man. They’re operating these fantasies about how a black president gonna change things. He didn’t change shit. For black people? He didn’t change anything. I’m just saying, if shit was fair, if it was linear, you put a black president there and they’re going to attend to black needs then that would have been some sort of legal or judicial response to them shooting black people down like dogs in the street. That shit happened under Obama’s watch. And he was sending drones out here on people on the other part of the world. Next time they have an uprising in the United States there’s going to be drones all over the sky bombing black people. Because they tested that shit on other people. Anyway.

What I'm saying is: Stop identifying with white people, and nazis and shit. Stop trying to identify with something, and then you won’t have no problem.

I’m talking about people struggling against all kinds of opression. That’s what I’m interested in. The good guys. We won’t be able to stop the bad guys, but they can’t go around playing the good guys. They gotta know they are the evil empire. At least Darth Vader know he’s a bad guy! This motherfuckers go around playing as if they were the good guys. They are not good, they are the fucking pestilence in the world. Decent people trying to have descent lives against all these motherfuckers trying to destroy the world. That is a very straight forward message to me.


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