PRINT October 2013



Still from John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation, 2012, three-channel digital video, color and black-and-white, sound, 46 minutes. Center: Stuart Hall.

FEW ARTISTS WORKING TODAY share the depth of John Akomfrah’s understanding of African diasporic culture, particularly its complex entanglements with the shifting course of global politics, postcolonial experience, and the seductive structures of popular media. As a founding member of the acclaimed Black Audio Film Collective, Akomfrah contributed to the now-disbanded group’s filmic studies of great twentieth-century intellectuals, activists, and cultural figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.; of social developments such as the Black Power movement championed by Michael X in 1960s Britain or the Handsworth uprisings and related racial conflicts of the mid-’80s; and of influential musicians including Sun Ra and George Clinton. The Unfinished Conversation, 2012, which debuted at the 2012 Liverpool Biennial and was screened more recently at Nottingham’s New Art Exchange, is a masterful three-channel installation that examines the early professional life of British Jamaican cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall, tracing the roots of his development into a renowned public intellectual (Akomfrah will soon release a single-channel version, The Stuart Hall Project, covering Hall’s more recent life). In its subject matter and approach, this piece builds on Akomfrah’s earlier work with the collective, even as his exploration of the three-channel format opens up new possibilities for considering the relationship between subjectivity, history, and culture.

Hall makes a particularly fascinating and recursive subject for a focused investigation of identity, given that so much of his own work has been devoted to this same topic. One of his most influential insights, now one of the foundational concepts in cultural studies, is the observation that “identity is formed at the unstable point where the ‘unspeakable’ stories of subjectivity meet the narratives of history”—in other words, character is neither static nor ever fully formed, but always emerging at the fluid intersection between self and world, repression and canon. In his new work, Akomfrah sets himself the challenge of giving aesthetic expression to this idea. The work’s three channels allowed Akomfrah to develop a series of dialogical interactions between footage of Hall himself and that of historical events, alluding—sometimes enigmatically—to complex processes of determination that correlate with Hall’s own conception of identity.

Hall’s life is visualized primarily via his frequent appearances on BBC television in the ’60s, in which he incisively discusses subjects ranging from his Afro-Caribbean background and personal relationship to his adopted country’s colonial past, to the entanglement of race and inequality in Britain, his early involvement in editing the New Left Review, and his formative role in the development of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Akomfrah expertly mixes these passages with contemporaneous depictions of key geopolitical events, including civil rights protests and corresponding incidents of police brutality in the US, military assaults in Korea and Vietnam, and appearances by Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, during the momentous early years of African decolonization.

Materializing his subject within this heterogeneous archive of images, Akomfrah achieves a powerful resonance not only with Hall’s lived experience of migratory displacement—born in Jamaica in 1932, Hall permanently settled in Britain in 1951—but with the broader drifts between past events and individual memories that ultimately shape a sense of self. The Unfinished Conversation thus makes a provocative proposal: to historically situate subjectivity without resorting to common documentary tropes such as neohumanist psychobiography or overdetermined causal narrative. It would be hard to imagine a more appropriate tribute to this towering figure of twentieth-century thought, particularly as Hall’s inspiring intellectual presence has profoundly influenced Akomfrah’s own formation as one of his generation’s most significant filmmakers.

T. J. Demos

Still from John Akomfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project, 2013, digital video, color and black- and-white, sound, 103 minutes. Stuart Hall.

THE UNFINISHED CONVERSATION pays homage to the long life of a great thinker, someone who has continually interrogated words—and is still speaking powerful ones. Stuart Hall has been crucial to the evolution of not just my thinking but that of a whole generation of black intellectuals and artists in the UK. I’d been talking to Hall on and off for almost thirty years, and so the challenge of the project was to tackle my complex subject in an audiovisual work of an acceptable length—not an easy task!

Hall was an important figure for Black Audio Film Collective’s practice since our beginning in the early 1980s. We not only turned to him for practical advice but looked to his theoretical analysis of identity and culture as cues for living. I took on this project because I felt that it was the right time to apply some of what we learned from Hall’s work and life back to understanding that very work and life. Yet I didn’t want to make a biography. Instead, I wanted to follow Hall himself in situating identity between the personal and political: How much of Hall’s life, thought, and cultural and psychic formation could be subjected to his own operating theses?

I began the project by looking through Hall’s personal records, where I discovered that he possessed an extensive archive of his own speaking engagements and public activities—not surprising for someone who had legitimized popular culture as a serious field of scholarly investigation. I sifted through about three hundred hours of radio and television recordings. What I found most fascinating was that this material often showed Hall fitting his own concerns into the preexisting media frameworks he encountered. For example, some producer would decide that inequality, urban poverty, crime and policing, or nuclear disarmament was something important to talk about and reach out to Hall, who would then use that conversation as a platform to voice his ideas, which might or might not be directly related. The film includes many gems that resulted from Hall taking the opportunity to fit his own concerns within framing devices that were not necessarily his own.

Hall’s notion of the “unspeakable stories of subjectivity” offered another point of departure, suggesting the ways in which his own subjectivity is shaped by events he’s lived through, even if their impact on his life remains in certain ways unspoken. As someone on the left who came of age during the ’60s, for instance, I knew he was influenced by Vietnam, even if I didn’t know the texture and details of how that conflict marked his life. I pointed to such convergences in the film with clips from the BBC’s television archive, showing events such as the arrival of West Indians in Britain in the ’50s, revolution in Cuba later that same decade, and staged Maoist rallies in China in the ’60s.

The film has no direct commentary that might explain Hall’s relationship to events such as these. My desire was not to force such biographical or narrative accounts. In fact, trying to make these connections legible would have been dangerous; it would have forced me to offer explanations that I don’t believe in. Historical shifts are affecting, but they don’t need to be overdetermining. And the piece’s structure as a triptych allowed me to propose a way around and against causal logic. The associations between channels are sometimes enigmatic, and for me this uncertainty is closer to the truth of things than anything else I could have done. For instance, Hall came to England in 1951 to study literature. He eventually turned away from that pursuit, but in my film you find segments of The Waves by Virginia Woolf delivered by voice-over, because they can say something about Hall’s formative context. I’m not claiming that he loves Virginia Woolf; rather, her words invoke ideas about the play of elemental forces beyond one’s control, which evokes the allure of literature for him.

That Hall didn’t choose those passages himself is neither here nor there. I think of such juxtapositions as collisions between unspeakable moments of subjectivity. They can imply a world of uncanny correlations, sparking retrospective realizations of affinities that were never conscious but which may nonetheless have had a seminal effect on someone’s life.

In the ’90s, one of my favorite writers was the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, who referred to this labyrinthine quality of experience as “the forest of things” that surrounds us throughout our lives. That graphic image has remained very important to me. Similarly, I want The Unfinished Conversation to make viewers feel as if they’re caught in a maelstrom of visual culture, of sensory overload, because, in metonymic terms, the violence of that experience seems to be the violence of subjectivity itself. Film can make those sensations apparent: The form of the piece mimics that turbulence, not only through the three channels and the wide range of footage, but also with a diverse sound track that includes the music of jazz vocalist Billie Holiday, American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, jazz keyboardist and composer Joe Zawinul, and ambient innovator Brian Eno, among others. So the forest or storm becomes something more than just metaphor; it is an experience that can tell you about Hall’s cohabitation with the historical.

As you might expect from the title, The Unfinished Conversation is not my last piece about Hall. I have also completed a feature-length film, The Stuart Hall Project, 2013, which follows his life up to the year 2000. The key difference is that this piece is simpler: It’s a single-channel film, and consequently there’s more pressure on me to work narratively. In response to this constraint, I decided that the new film will be structured through dialogues with myself and others, rather than being organized around footage in which Hall is speaking directly to the audience. Throughout, the film will show Hall talking to one of his favorite musicians, Miles Davis, whose music he discovered in the late ’40s and followed until Davis’s death, in 1991.

This chorus of conversations was also inspired, in part, by Slavoj Žižek’s discussion of Jacques Lacan’s “silent partners,” which points to the psychoanalyst’s connection to various historical figures whom you wouldn’t necessarily think about in relation to him. Someone like Davis can help us unearth some of Hall’s silent partners, whether they’re thinkers such as Raymond Williams, cultural formations like the New Left, or geopolitical events such as the Suez Crisis or the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. These shadow figures present ways of moving further beyond the genre of biography, both paralleling and revealing the drama of becoming Stuart Hall.