The pioneering British filmmaker John Akomfrah is co-founder of the Black Audio Film Collective and director of The Nine Muses (2010) and The Stuart Hall Project (2013). The following interview focuses on four video installations: Vertigo Sea (48 mins, 2015), Tropikos (36 mins, 2016), The Airport (52 mins, 2016), and Auto da Fé (40 mins, 2016). In these films Akomfrah interrogates a series of contemporary crises that have been shaped by our planet’s violent history, including the destruction of the natural world, economic collapse, religious persecution and enforced migration. The works attest to Akomfrah’s abiding interest in not only memory and diasporic experience but also in media aesthetics, especially the repurposing of archive footage. Moreover, in their deployment of original material the installations are also highly attentive to the politics of mise en scene. As in earlier films such as The Nine Muses and his work with BAFC these formal considerations are inseparable from thematic concerns.
A self-declared “born bricoleur”1, Akomfrah deploys a three-screen format in Vertigo Sea to reframe diverse images and set them into dialogue with each other. Beautiful high-definition footage of apparently pristine oceans and woods shot by the BBC’s Natural History Unit plays alongside grainy images of the perilous voyages of Vietnamese boat people, the whaling industry’s butchery, a man shooting polar bears from the deck of a ship, and a reenactment of the Zong massacre of 1781, in which 132 slaves were thrown overboard in the Caribbean to claim their insurance value as lost cargo. The result is mutual complication and interrogation. Images of violence, greed and brutality both foreground and refute the convenient elision of centuries of environmental depredation in the NHU’s spectacular material; the beauty of the natural world it depicts rebukes the destruction of humans and animals for profit and pleasure. This dialectical process offers new understandings about the multivalent, violent and bountiful histories of our planet’s seas.
The vertiginous temporalities produced by Vertigo Sea’s multi-screen edits are echoed by collisions staged within the frame in Tropikos. Its dialectical use of mise en scene is encapsulated in a scene of a young black man dressed as an Elizabethan nobleman, standing on a jetty in Plymouth Sound watching a modern warship. This anachronism yokes together late 16th century naval exploration, Britain’s colonial past, and its military power in the modern world. A single-screen film shot in the Tamar Valley between Devon and Cornwall, Tropikos attends to the traces of the past in the present moment by recalling Elizabethan journeys of exploration and trade which exerted a formative influence on the emerging politics of slavery, food and British naval dominance in subsequent centuries. In a Brechtian gesture the waters, woods and fields of south-west England stand in for the shores of West Africa, announced in intertitles as “the Guinea Coast” or “Sierra Leone”.
The Airport, filmed in Greece, eschews visual archive, instead deploying old radio broadcasts to accompany speechless actors in various costumes (including a spaceman and someone in a gorilla suit), who are assembled in locations marked by the detritus of a derelict economy, from the empty bars and runways of an abandoned airport to a coastline littered with rusting ships. A similar technique is used in Auto da Fé, shot in Barbados, wherein silent figures in appropriate historical dress represent immigrants fleeing persecution: Sephardic Jews from Brazil, Huguenots from Brittany, Christians from Iraq. The diptych also shows washed up in the surf photographs, a cheap holdall, and a child’s doll, reminders of the constant threat of drowning that looms over the search for a place of safety.
On the eve of his first major exhibition in the US in summer 2016, Akomfrah talks about his recent gallery films, and the influence of Chris Marker, Patricio Guzmán and Andrei Tarkovsky on his work.
In previous interviews you’ve talked of ‘unfixing’ images and putting them into dialogue with each other.2 This technique is very effective in The Nine Muses and Vertigo Sea, where you reframe archive material, especially with the multiple screens in Vertigo Sea, but in Tropikos you stage anachronisms within the mise en scene to condense a political point. I’m thinking especially of the jetty sequence with the battleship at the end of the film. Can you tell me about your choices here, and what you see as their similarities and differences in terms of aesthetics and impact?
With The Nine Muses and Vertigo Sea there is an attempt to generate a dialogue between different archival forms, not just the images that are officially designated as ‘archival’, such as library footage. I was trying to wrestle with how one insinuates a notion of the archival. A lot of the sequences with Vertigo Sea and The Nine Muses are infused with the desire, in the original shot material, to bear some trace or elements of the past. With Tropikos, it was not possible to use archive, so I tried to have the dialogue within the frame, to retain some notion of the archival, so that the archival and the present can sit easily with each other. Tropikos was informed by my reading of The Tempest especially, and by images of black people in Western painting of the time. I read quite a lot about 17th and 18th century painting. In this way some archival traces are evident in the original material. So there’s a migration towards the past and the present within the same frame.
In Peripeteia (2012), you insert black and white photographs (a woman tied up with an arrow through her leg, a group of men in captivity) into the original colour sequences. These pictures gesture to the filmed characters’ experience of captivity and enslavement, to memory and so to a sense of their interiority. Why is this device not deployed in Tropikos? What do you gain from withholding it? Is it part of a Brechtian challenge to individualist psychology?
With Peripeteia we start with these images from which we can make migrations. I wanted to carry out ‘ideational migrations’, if you like, from those [photographic] images. In Tropikos the use of drapes and curtains in the frame gives an implied presence of the archival, rather than what we did in Peripeteia. I’m interested in how one infuses or disavows the archival, and that needs something Brechtian to get the correct distance. I’m very interested in costume drama, and if one commandeers it, the film needs to establish itself as different from costume drama on television and in cinema, which is all about the interior [of characters]. The trappings of costume drama are ruses to essentially hide that critical fact, that these are people in the present emoting about the past. I didn’t want to go down that route. If you’re going to commandeer a genre and force a migration of it, some differences need to be registered, to give a kind of relative autonomy, a space of separation, for instance through a Brechtian epic approach. This is not so much denying interiority as holding back from its full implications.
Let’s go back to the idea of putting images into dialogue. For me, this is especially successful in Vertigo Sea when these beautiful, spectacular and pristine images from nature documentaries collide with a reenactment of the Zong massacre, and with footage of whaling, which is both industrialised and almost medieval in its brutality, and of that man shooting polar bears with a rifle. Is your intention partly to critique the BBC material for what it excludes, which is human impacts and violence towards people and the degradation of the environment, things that are usually absented from nature documentaries?
Well you could certainly see it that way, but it wasn’t strictly my intention. What was at stake with Vertigo Sea was trying to imply the presence of multiple ontologies. The starting point for the film was there are these accounts of enslaved Africans being drowned at sea, and there are Vietnamese boat people dying at sea, and then there are political prisoners [in South America] dying at sea. It was important to have the suggestion of these fatalities coexisting in the same space. This is home to the largest mammal on the planet, but it’s also a space of barbarity and killing.
I think there has been a change in the address of nature documentaries since I was a child watching television in the 1960s, with Jacques Cousteau and other people, they were saying ‘what a wonderful world we live in’. Now there’s a slightly more melancholic sense, that ‘disappearing world’ ethic. We aren’t starting with that critique [in Vertigo Sea] but I think it could be found in the film.
I’d like to talk more about ambiguity and the polysemic in your work. Have you seen Guzmán’s Pearl Button (2015)? I think it’s comparable to your own work in that it has this coexistence or dialectic between a politics of documentation, exhuming forgotten or shameful histories to counter a collective amnesia, and alongside that something more poetic: spectral and melancholic elements that complicate a straightforward claim to document the real. For me in The Nine Muses those two clips of the horse are an ambiguous image that exceeds its significance in the archive footage. It’s beautiful, it has this corporeality, but its meaning is not entirely clear to me. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s no less powerful for that. Is it a memory? What is it about that horse?
No, I haven’t seen it [The Pearl Button]. But I know Patricio Guzmán and even before I knew him he was a major hero of mine, from the Battle of Chile (1975) days. I’m enormously attracted, influenced and empowered by the existence of his work. There is a certain affinity between Nostalgia for the Light (2010) and Vertigo Sea. Nostalgia for the Light is not just a political work, it shows that the phantom [of memory] doesn’t stop when the regime changes. All his work starts with the fall, the implosion of the Allende government, and by implication the whole Latin American left. So it’s a post-Edenic image, a post-utopian image of the world after the fall. This [sense] informs the subject matter and makes it appear poetic, but what one is observing is very poetic in itself.
There is a way in which I work to find poetry in the metonymic, to work with images that have authority and autonomy and value in their own right. So [in The Nine Muses] it’s a horse in a field, it is free, it’s running around, and at some point it approaches the camera. But its meanings free float, they can be commandeered, not just as magic or mystery, but also from the juxtaposition of images. If we’ve learned anything from film theory it’s this. It’s the key message from Vertov and Kuleshov. Chris Marker’s lesson in Sunless (1983) is to get an itinerary of images that mean something in their own right, that can then be put together. I admire horses enormously but also they can be ‘led’ to your own narrative, not necessarily deliberately, even at an unconscious level. Here is an image of a creature, a horse, it’s roaming free, it’s ‘wild’, no saddle on its back, so the viewer knows in some way that you are working with ideas of freedom. But the trick is not to state it, not to underwrite it. Then it merely becomes symbolic. There is a value in the metonymic, a vitality, a truth. It’s a horse, and it’s also possibly a dream of freedom, an illusion. I don’t want to appear overly hostile to symbolism, but we’re in a space with the possibility of arriving at other forms of statement, a Tarkovskian space. So we have images that have a value and an autonomy in their own right, and an aura at the same time. But one is not being forced to see a meaning.
One of the reasons I love Tarkovsky so much is that he is one of those filmmakers (along with Kurosawa) who use other, non-human ontologies really well. A dog here, a horse there. And he gets the balance right, without suggesting a hierarchy. One is never making a judgement about whether a horse or dog is superior to humans, but it has a narrative authority.
In Tropikos, in Vertigo Sea, and in several of your other works, it seems to me that you don’t so much collapse or confound linear time as remind viewers of the importance of this linearity via the ongoing consequences of history in shaping the present moment. Is that fair to say? How do you approach and conceive of time in your recent films?
l have a kind of sense of the question of the temporal, and it informs two very different acts of faith. First, I’m against teleology, the idea that time is unfolding towards some moment of greater clarity, which is always the present. I’m also against time as a construct that shapes us, as in ‘oh, is that the time? I’ve got to rush!’ But there are linearities in the temporal, implications and causalities. To go back to the Zong massacre, the fact that a group of Africans were thrown into the sea [as unwanted cargo], this and other moments in the slave trade effectively changed the boundaries of humanity, and we are still living inside those boundaries, more or less. So most of my work is in dialogue with ideas of time, and this dialogue is stretched further the minute you start to talk about multi-screen work. With the Zong massacre, at the time the owners of the ship themselves were in London enjoying and living life, and the insurers were in London too. So you had several actors involved, but they weren’t present at the moment and the scene of the crime. This coexistence of different versions of time at the same time, multiple screens allow you to do that.
I want to ask you about humour. In The Nine Muses there’s a great moment where you link an archive clip of immigrants to the UK playing bingo with a voiceover from The Odyssey warning of the hazards of the Sirens. But humour seems to be less evident in some of your later works. Why is that?
[Laughs] I’m glad you noticed that moment. People who know me can’t put that [version of me] and the more austere film figure together. For me, I need to find the right balance between levity and a political response to life. I’m certainly not consciously trying to avoid humour!
In The Airport you make allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980), two films which thematize time travel. Were there any other reasons for quoting Stanley Kubrick?
Well, I will go to any lengths to get a non-human into the film, from the soundtrack of humpbacked whales in Handsworth Songs (1987) on. It’s almost an act of faith. I am drawn to films that do that, so with 2001, it’s probably the most famous scene of non-human ontology on screen. I’m interested in suggesting the so-called ‘primeval’ on screen. What more can we squeeze out from it? From staging the opening scene of 2001in a place [Greece] in the present crisis, how much more can we get out of this? To insinuate another way of arriving at this crisis. Kubrick is also a sort of reminder of the need for vigilance in how one constructs images. He is meticulous, almost every frame is extremely thought through. I have no attachment to a Kubrickian universe, but it’s some way of acknowledging that [craft].
How would you situate Auto Da Fe´ in relation to the films we’ve been discussing so far?
Auto Da Fe´ is part of a long line of reflections on migrancy and migration. I’m very keen to suggest proximities between different forms of migration. For example, one thing about our idea of modernity is the ‘new world’ narrative, in which groups of people left the so-called ‘old world’ and found the ‘new world’ and founded colonies. Running alongside that narrative is another one, a narrative of flight. The boats from the 1490s onwards were taking Jews from Europe, Moors from Spain, these people were running away! It’s a narrative of flight from persecution, and there’s a continuous line to the present, with Syrians, Afghans, and Africans of all sorts. So the film is an attempt to wrestle with this counter narrative.
What are you working on right now? What are your current and future projects?
I have two major projects underway at the moment, but I’m now in a position that I’m not entirely happy about [laughs] where I’m not allowed to say anything about them!
A selection of John Akomfrah’s recent installations are being screened at the Lisson Gallery, New York, from 24 June to 12 August 2016. He also has work in the British Art Show, which tours Norwich and Southampton later in 2016. Vertigo Sea will be shown at the Turner Contemporary, Margate, in autumn 2016.
- “John Akomfrah” Lisson Gallery press release, January 2016. ↩
- “It’s one of the things I’m obsessed about with archives, because on the one hand they’re repositories of official memory, but they’re also phantoms of other kinds of memories that weren’t taken up.” Quoted on p. 45 of interview with Kieron Corless, “One from the heart” Sight and Sound 22:2, February 2012, pp 44-46. ↩