In conversation: John Akomfrah and Beatrice Gibson
In Art Quarterly, the artist-filmmakers discuss cameras, collage, collectives, Cornelius Cardew and the other ‘multi-layered, multinarrative multiplicities’ that characterise their works.
John Akomfrah (born Accra, Ghana, 1957) makes multi-layered multi-screen moving-image installations, among them The Unfinished Conversation, which the Art Fund helped Tate and the British Council to acquire, and Vertigo Sea, one of the highlights of last year’s Venice Biennale and now showing at Arnolfini in Bristol.
A generation younger, Beatrice Gibson (born London, 1978) was the winner of last year’s Baloise Art Prize at Art Basel. Her often elegiac films are also composite works, embracing sound, music, literature, landscape and, like much of Akomfrah’s work, born out of an interest in collaborative and collective production. They met in Akomfrah’s east London studio, which doubles as the offices of his film and television production company, Smoking Dogs Films.
Art Quarterly: John, you’ve described yourself as a ‘born bricoleur [who] loves the way that things that are otherwise discrete and self-contained start to suggest things once they’re forced into a dialogue with something else’. The principal theme of your new video installation Auto da Fé, one of four works of yours screening in the UK this spring, is the persecution and displacement of peoples from the Huguenots who fled France in the 16th and 17th centuries to present-day migrations from Hombori in Mali and Mosul in Iraq. What was its starting point?
John Akomfrah: About four years ago I went to Barbados to teach a course, and I met a guy who said he was a Sephardi Jew. I said: ‘There’s no way…’ because he didn’t quote-unquote ‘look’ like one. He took me to the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery in Bridgetown. I was astonished.
Beatrice Gibson: What is the Jewish population of Barbados?
JA: Tiny now. [About 100, out of a total population of 285,000.] But there was a time in the 17th century when people fleeing the auto-da-fé in northern Brazil went to the Caribbean in their hundreds, and quite a lot settled in Barbados. [To which they brought sugar cane along with the knowledge of how to cultivate it. That Brazil was a Dutch colony from 1630 to 1654 is evident in the 500 windmills, built to process it, that survive across the region.]
It seemed to me to be a fragment of history calling to be inserted into a larger narrative. It’s part of this weird double bind of migration. On the one hand, people are trying to get away from something. But then they arrive in this place, and the technology they bring necessitates degradation of another form of human life.
To walk into that cemetery and to see epitaphs, dating back to the 1660s, of people in so many different languages… Here in microcosm was the multiculturalism we’re always talking about. In a way, it’s very much like Vertigo Sea [which, along with whales and whale-hunting, also takes migration as one of its themes, beginning with a harrowing excerpt from a BBC broadcast in which a young African refugee escaping on a boat that is taking on water, clambers onto a tuna cage and fears he is going to be eaten]. I’m trying to find engines or narrative propulsions that connect things that aren’t otherwise obviously connected.
BG: I was really blown away by Vertigo Sea and The Unfinished Conversation. I think they’re amazing. They’re the first multi-screen works that I’ve really enjoyed. I’ve always felt resistant to non-single-screen work. I want to go into galleries for peace, not for more bombardment by some gratuitously immersive spectacular bollocks. [Akomfrah roars with laughter.] But honestly, this was really the first time I thought: ‘This is amazing use of screens.’ It made me want to make multi-screen work for the first time ever.
JA: Thank you very much for that.
BG: The multi-screen format allows you to do something much more expansive, or at least less reductive, in establishing connections that aren’t necessarily causal or linear. It’s like a synthesis; the ultimate form for your collagist, bricoleurist approach. All those multi-layered, multi-narrative multiplicities.
JA: I was looking at your films, thinking all these strategies that you employ seem to me to be dying for expansion. I wondered why you hadn’t moved in that direction. A single screen can’t contain all you’re trying to do. What struck me first was that all the conditions of affinity between your works seem to emanate from the fact that you shoot on 16mm film. I wanted to ask you why you were still committed to it.
BG: I like the way it looks, to be honest. It has an opinion. Budget-wise, it’s not necessarily any more expensive than HD [high-definition video], given all the post-production that’s needed with HD. There’s an immediacy about it. And I guess I also feel it has an affinity with cinema history, much more so than with the art world. It also imposes a set of restrictions on set, which I enjoy. It matches the material I work with in a way. I’m not working with actors who are striving to give great performances, so I’m not doing 45 takes. There’s a discipline inherent in it that I appreciate. The authorship has to happen in the setting up of the situation, rather than the performance of it.
JA: Weirdly, it was the issue of authorship that led to my migration to digital. Back in the 1980s [Akomfrah made his first major work, Handsworth Songs, about the 1985 riots in Birmingham and London, as part of the Black Audio Film Collective], working on film was really hard because there was this hierarchy in the film industry, which pretty much mirrored the quote-unquote ‘power relations’ at the time. The labs almost reinscribed those systems of inequality. Let’s say I went to Ghana and came back with 40 cans of Super 16mm, which I sent to Technicolor. It was not uncommon for them to treat it like a third-class citizen. If Ridley Scott had brought his latest project in, that would obviously get preferential treatment, but everything about the process gave you the sense that it was a technology that reflected existing relations outside just a little too crudely.
BG: The labs can still be a problem because there are fewer and fewer of them. It took three weeks to get the rushes back for the last piece I shot because no one could sync up the sound. They didn’t have an edge-numbering machine.
JA: But there is something special about film. I was watching your film Agatha [based on the experimental British composer Cornelius Cardew’s dream about a planet where there is no technology and no one speaks, communicating instead through music, the rhythms of their gait, the changing colours of their bodies]. And I was struck by the stripes on the side.
BG: I was like, ‘Oh no!’ when it came back from the lab, and then I thought: ‘It’s sci-fi! Let’s work with this.’
JA: It made me feel almost nostalgic for film. There must have been a tiny hole in the mag, so light got in just before you took it out of the bag or something. There was a time when you’d have looked at that and thought, ‘Oh fuck!’ and got rid of it. But now even the particles of film are interesting.
BG: They imply a sort of authenticity. That was the most low-key project I’ve done: just a Bolex, a bunch of friends, no synced sound. It cost about £5,000. Normally, I work with a crew in a more structured and conventional way. You work with whatever means are available. You can make a film on your iPhone. I actually started with a massive crew. So Agatha was a breath of fresh air. There wasn’t a producer breathing down my neck. We cooked nice roasts and filmed when we felt like it and made soup in between scenes. I understand now why I do this!
JA: The advantages of working like that are that you keep everything absolutely organised as you want it.
BG: A crew is a well-oiled machine, but there’s always a tension. On the one hand, I very much enjoy the sociality of that. And the way that, once it’s rolling, it really functions. On the other, if you come from the art world and want to do things differently, you have to have constant arguments. They say things like: ‘Why do you want to record live sound? Couldn’t you do that in post-production?’ They don’t understand that I want my work to be about process too. I want it to be a document with sound in the landscape. And they’re like, ‘Why would you do this to yourself?’ So I have to spend three hours justifying myself.
JA: That’s a really important point for me. One of the reasons we closed the Black Audio Film Collective in the mid-1990s was the commitment to processes felt as if it had reached its logical course.
BG: I wanted to ask about the relationship between the Collective and Smoking Dogs Films. It’s many of the same people, but the implications of the structures are very different. One was very much a collective, the other is a production company.
JA: Even though Black Audio was named a collective, it was really a cooperative structure, which meant we were part of the industrial commonality of a co-op. In a way, the practice hasn’t changed, but the failings of the common-ownership movement mean the whole legal thing has changed quite dramatically. It’s a bit like improvised music. The director’s name is just the beginning. It doesn’t define anything. Saying I’m the director tells you little about how we work, which is much more fluid.
BG: But at the same time it’s important to define those roles so there’s something to start from. You need to take some responsibility for what you’re doing. The Tiger’s Mind  was a film about collective work based on a Cardew score that is basically a portrait of the improv group, AMM, he was in. He wrote it at the time he was playing with them, so it’s kind of a provocation because, obviously, his music isn’t scored. It’s a portrait of musicians in performance with one another; a kind of critique of collaborative practice.
JA: You’re one of the few filmmakers I know whose work is grounded in a profound understanding of music and who’s mastered the sonic dimension: Stockhausen, concrète, Fluxus. I love Cardew too, but I’ve never attempted to explore a practice with him as a sort of interlocutor as a silent partner.
BG: For me, he kind of embodies this ongoing, never-ending unfinished conversation between the personal and political, politics and poetics. He has this crazy trajectory where he’s at the forefront of the avant-garde, and the next minute he’s in village halls saying fuck Stockhausen.
JA: It’s now about Chinese folk. [Cardew was both a Maoist and influenced by English folk tunes.]
BG: People say MI5 had him assassinated. He was hit by a van and killed [in 1981] when he was quite high up in the Communist Party. Who knows if it’s true, but it was never solved. It’s like Roland Barthes. He was hit by a laundry van in Paris the year before [and later died from his injuries].
JA: What made Cardew unusual in this country was that he was so political. In Italy or France, they’ve been at the coalface: Luigi Nono and all manner of people were members of the Communist Party. Here, there were not that many. And Cardew is fascinating because of that. You really feel this tension in his work. The endless, endless fighting. A lot of the images in your films seem to sum up that tension, but the one that really stays with me is the falling tiger [a ceramic one the size of a Great Dane] in The Tiger’s Mind. It falls in what seems like 100 frames a second.
BG: I had a crazy slow-mo camera. It’s the only part not shot on 16mm. It’s like 1,000 frames a second.
JA: Something about that images speaks of so much of your practice. The act of falling is in itself fantastic. But it’s the shattering, and the way you look forensically at all the fragments veering off in different directions. How did you do that? That wasn’t done in one shot.
BG: Well, to reveal my dirty laundry, we had eight – or maybe it was five – ceramic tigers.
JA: No way! It reminded me of the final scene of Zabriskie Point and the house being blown up. Apparently, Antonioni shot it with eight Mitchell cameras, which are enormous.
BG: We were told we’d need a pyrotechnical expert so the tiger would shatter in the right way. And I said, ‘Can’t we just buy eight tigers and push them off the scaffolding?’ So that’s what we did. It is quite violent. But the whole process of that film was a difficult one. I’d invited six friends to make this piece of work and it kind of fell apart because the premise of the film was authorship, and it turns into a murder story. I kill all my collaborators. Watching the rough cut was kind of awkward.
As someone who aims to work collaboratively and collectively, the key thing is to define from the beginning what you’re all doing. But we couldn’t do that because the question itself was authorship. That’s why everyone dies. The tiger was the defining implosional moment of that. In the end it proposes an idea of collectivity that is somehow different from collaboration.
JA: One of the advantages we’ve had as a collective is that our sense of what constitutes the practice draws as much from the sonic world, from music, as it does film. If you take different forms of collaboration in jazz between 1949 and, say, 1969, there’s a huge difference between, for instance, the Charlie Parker Quintet and the Art Ensemble of Chicago 30 years later. There’s a huge gulf between Miles Davis [at the time of the 1970 album] Bitches Brew and the Miles Davis Quartet of the early 1950s. Yet they were all collaborative projects. There’s no way any of this work can happen without other people. There has to be the understanding that everyone is at the top of their game. It might say John Coltrane on the cover, but you know Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison are there too. These guys were all titans. They knew you didn’t have to sublimate identity to achieve collaborative practice. There are models of collaboration in music that are much more varied and nuanced than cultural narratives lead you to believe. It’s not about sitting around debating how many lentils should go into the stew. We were never like that.
BG: Maybe the multi-screen question relates to that on a different level: the multi-screen represents the collective, and the single frame is the individual. Maybe it’s a manifestation of the bricoleur in you, the collagist, the multiple voices that inhabit your work.
John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea is at Arnolfini, Bristol, to 10 April; John Akomfrah is at Lisson Gallery, London to 12 March, . All That is Solid, British Art Show 8 is in Edinburgh to 8 May; then Norwich and Southampton.