Garrett Bradley

Garrett Bradley on reimagining national memory and cinema in America

Garret Bradley, America, 2019, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 27 minutes.

Screened on four intersecting, transparent white flags affixed to copper poles, Garrett Bradley’s America is a 360-degree, twenty-seven-minute odyssey through the United States’s elided cinematic histories. Informed by communities working at Hollywood’s edge in the silent-era as well as those in present-day New Orleans, the film interleaves archival and original footage to offer a more encompassing history of the country. Below, Bradley discusses the film, one of three works in the artist’s first solo exhibition, “Garrett Bradley: American Rhapsody,” which opens December 19, 2019, at the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, and remains on view through March 22, 2020.

AMERICA BEGAN IN 2014, when the Museum of Modern Art, New York, debuted what they believed to be the very first feature-length film with an integrated cast: Lime Kiln Club Field Day. The production, which is also the oldest surviving film with black actors, was made in 1913 and starred the Bahamian-American recording artist Bert Williams, and struck me for how progressive it was, both in its social and technological formation. A little over a decade prior, in 1896, Plessy vs. Ferguson was decided in New Orleans, enshrining Jim Crow as law. And not long before that, the modern-day cinema projector was invented. Technology was bringing people together as society was being separated. When I discovered a Library of Congress survey stating that seventy percent of the films made between 1912 and 1929 have gone missing—roughly 7,500 of them—I began to see Lime Kiln Club Field as a catalyst for a project. What if this lost body of work were equally progressive as Williams’s film?

America’s twelve vignettes, interspersed between footage of Lime Kiln Club Field, coexist in a visual chronology starting in 1915 and going through 1926. Each story highlights a person or moment in time that has also, in a way, become invisible. The film celebrates historical black achievements, such as the story of Bessie Coleman, a black woman from Florida who was the first American to receive an international pilot’s license, while also highlighting more contemporary narratives in which black presence has been muffled, such as the young black men in the Boy Scouts of America. I’ve added black history to moments that seem unequivocally white and noninclusive in order to insert ourselves into national memory and create new iconographies around what it means to be American. For example, the film opens on an image of a white sheet, and we watch how its associations and power shifts depending on who’s holding it, beginning with the KKK and ending with the Buffalo Soldiers, a still-active, historically black social aid and pleasure club that has been around since the turn of the twentieth century.

We’re living in a time where we’re trying to understand how to deal with our past, and this project doesn’t at all seek to replace what we don’t know. It evokes and echoes the spirit of what already exists. I see America as a template for how visual storytelling and the assembly of images can serve as an archive of the past and a document of the present. The nature of the installation is a play on perspective. One’s own curiosity and physical positioning around the work can offer a different way of seeing and experiencing. A viewer can look straight ahead at one screen, for instance, or position themselves within overlapping images from multiple images, multiple years. The use of transparent white flags in the installation was important for me—it became a very simple way of experiencing time as it truly feels: subjective and simultaneous. I also wanted to build on installation as a practice to reinforce the idea of transparency and dialogue not only within the concept of time but between communities. The film was shot on 35 mm and then transferred to video, and while it was originally silent, Trevor Mathison created a beautiful soundscape to accompany each chapter. The audio also includes New Orleans residents describing what they believe is the difference between the “United States” and “America.” All of the elements of America combine the historical and contemporary, invoke both silence and the addition of voices, and invite viewers to imagine a future that transpires from acknowledging all of society’s achievements.

When I moved to New Orleans from Los Angeles to make Below Dreams, my thesis film for graduate school, I relied on Craigslist ads for casting. Working with local, nonprofessional actors was a process that emerged from necessity and ended up being a lesson on the significance of making connections across communities and their stories. Huey Copeland once pointed out to me that when you work in this way, it challenges the idea of auteurism because the artwork becomes a product of codirection. I felt there was also something to be said for the legacies of racism and removal in the context of New Orleans, which were made horrifically visible in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. America provided an opportunity to think not only about the archive, but also the incredible work happening in the city right now. There are many moments in the film that argue for the importance of linking what’s missing with what is.