PRINT October/November 2020


Garrett Bradley, America, 2019, three-channel 35 mm transferred to 4K video projection, black-and-white, sound, 23 minutes 55 seconds. Production still.

AT FIRST GLANCE, Time, 2020, and America, 2019, two moving-image works by Garrett Bradley being showcased this autumn, have almost nothing in common. Time is a feature-length documentary portrait edited from two decades of low-tech video diaries kept by Fox Rich, a Louisiana mother of six and a justice-reform activist, as she struggled to win her husband Rob’s release from the prison where he was serving a sixty-year sentence. America is a multichannel installation of luminous, often ecstatic beauty, the touchstone for which is the 1913 Lime Kiln Club Field Day, created by and starring Bert Williams and thought to be the first American-made film with an all-Black cast. More than a century later, the movie was discovered and restored by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which is where Bradley saw it and where America will be installed in a first-floor gallery, beginning November 21, in a joint presentation by MoMA and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Time opens October 9 in select theaters and streams on Amazon a week later. 

But anyone familiar with Bradley’s work, including the 2019 twenty-seven minute single-channel version, which, like Time, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, may realize that both of these works speak to Bradley’s commitment to collective production, to bringing largely hidden and even imagined archives to light, and to the expressive relationship between image and music. Bradley, who grew up in Brooklyn, moved to New Orleans in 2010 to complete her thesis film for her master’s degree at the University of California, Los Angeles, and has continued to work in the city as an artist and educator. What began as a short film portrait turned into a feature when Rich handed Bradley a bag filled with about one hundred hours of mini-DV tapes she had recorded so that her husband would be able to see their family’s life in the years while he was unjustly separated from it. Rich is the first-person storyteller of Time, but Bradley, working with editor Gabriel Rhodes, shaped her videos into a movie that is both intimate and epic, where time is not linear but has the synchronicity of memory, coalescing around repeated moments in which Rich waits, phone in hand, to hear from the “authorities” whether her husband will be released. Her tenacity is amazing. It fuses past and present in the hope for a reunion in the future. The piano music, which flows like an undercurrent throughout the film, is similarly unmoored from time. It was composed and played by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, a now-ninety-six-year-old Ethiopian nun who was imprisoned during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935–37). Bradley found the 1967 recording on YouTube. She said the music evoked the happy ending of a fairy tale.

Garrett Bradley, Time, 2020, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 81 minutes. Fox and Rob Rich.

Sound is just as crucial for America. Trevor Mathison and Udit Duseja’s collaged fragments of music, words, and electronic noise seem beamed in from outer space, where they’ve floated for decades. Given that about 70 percent of the films made in the silent era have been lost, Bradley imagined that Lime Kiln Club Field Day was not an anomaly and sought, in turn, to materialize a missing archive of moving images of Black Americans as joyous and progressive as Williams’s film. Both the single-channel America and the multichannel installation version comprise twelve short films, occasionally intercut, and all set between 1915 and 1926, some depicting scenes from everyday life, some celebrating the achievements of Black historical figures such as Bessie Coleman, the first American to receive an international pilot’s license. The handmade props and set are accurate to the period, and the performers have a gravity that goes beyond that of actors playing dress-up. Whether children or adults, they are contemporary bearers of their own histories. Shot in luminous, dense, 35-mm black-and-white with a gliding, floating camera, every image is exquisite. The installation at MoMA employs four transparent eight-foot-wide white screens suspended and fanning out from a central support. The digitally transferred film material is projected from opposite corners so that images are superimposed and ghosted (filtered through multiple transparencies). Not simply a collaboration among technicians, performers, and artisans, Bradley’s America through its image and sound structure also invites participation by viewers, who may find inside this time capsule a way to envision a new world.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.