Black Audio Film Collective

IS IT REALLY A MYSTERY why Black Audio Film Collective have had to wait nearly ten years since their dissolution for their first retrospective? Founded in London in 1982, the group operated in a context far removed from Britain’s burgeoning fascination with Turner Prizes and blockbuster YBA shows. Rather, their formation took place against the background of the country’s tumultuous 1970s: a period of postindustrial recession and increasing racial and class division during which violent unrest was both cause and consequence of policing tactics seen by urban groups—and by African-Caribbean and Asian populations in particular—as the return of colonialism to England itself. The subsequent attempt by government agencies to redirect public turmoil toward cultural production lent support and visibility to BAFC’s work, as the new public-service television station Channel 4 both funded and presented their films, along with those of other community-based collectives, including Sankofa, Retake, and Ceddo. (All these groups were part of a countrywide “workshop movement” that contributed to a renaissance of artistic and critical activity further energized by new institutions such as the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham and the feminism- and psychoanalysis-inflected film theory in journals like Screen.) While mindful of the potential co-optation attending Channel 4’s sponsorship, BAFC exploited the opportunity for their own radical ends, addressing, among other subjects, the postcolonial decline of empire and the devastating effects of Thatcherite economic policies on urban Britain.

However, to position BAFC’s practice as primarily political—easily done in a period obsessed with questions of identity—is to run the risk of obscuring the group’s artistic strengths. It’s true that their work appeared on television and at film festivals as well as in art galleries, but they used this flexibility to their advantage; it accorded well with their notion of filmmaking as both a political and an aesthetic endeavor. Commentators who see BAFC chiefly as a documentary enterprise offering a corrective to mainstream accounts of British history make it easy to overlook the experimental nature of the group’s work. In fact, BAFC’s critical approach to the visual modes that define political reality dovetailed with a skepticism regarding any claims to representing the definitive truth of historical experience. “Truly tough aesthetics . . . neither explains nor forgives history,” BAFC member Reece Auguiste wrote in 1988, quoting the St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott. It’s a wry observation that speaks to both the production and the reception of their oeuvre, and suggests why it resonates anew among like-minded artists today.

Indeed, we owe thanks to curators Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar—members of the Otolith Group, in whose filmmaking the legacy of BAFC clearly lives on—for this long overdue and beautifully organized retrospective, and for an accompanying monograph rich with essays, interviews, and photographic documentation. “The Ghosts of Songs” takes as its focus one early slidetape work—the stunning Signs of Empire, 1982–84, remade here as a projected DVD—and three of BAFC’s essay-films: their best-known piece, Handsworth Songs (1986), which examines the mid-’80s race riots and police brutality in Birmingham’s outskirts; Twilight City (1989), a portrait of London as a city of uneven economic development and social inequality; and Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993), which combines interviews with his relatives, friends, and commentators with a retelling of the story of his life. The films were presented in cozy soundproofed chambers designed by architect David Adjaye; each viewing space was surfaced in a different shade of colored felt, playing off the films’ distinct tonalities, which were frequently intensified by the use of chromatic filters. Supplementing this challenging but accessible selection of early and late works in the galleries were seven other of the group’s films, available for viewing in FACT’s media lounge—completing the retrospective’s breadth and providing access to work otherwise not readily available.

Signs of Empire, which opened up the exhibition, already engages many of the political concerns and formal strategies that would be central to the group until their disbanding in 1998. The collective’s sophisticated theoretical approach is apparent in the work’s title, drawn from Roland Barthes’s 1970 study of Japanese visual culture, Empire of Signs. Adopting the French theorist’s semiotic analysis but refocusing its interrogative power on imperial Britain, the work comprises “an investigation into colonial fantasy” as well as into the historical conditions that informed contemporary racial, economic, and diasporic life in Britain. A montage of texts and images is employed to deconstruct official historical narratives and archival photographs, cumulatively leaving the once-omnipotent empire in pieces. The panoply of striking scenes includes Rodchenko-inspired worm’s-eye shots of aging statues from Victorian public monuments and pictures of life during the heyday of the British Empire—some featuring English aristocrats on safari and Indian subjects in positions of servitude. The images tap into both the seductive exoticism of colonial adventure and the tragic results of its racist and paternalistic consequences. Part of this effect owes to the slides’ color tinting, which at times distorts the images’ ideological premises, at others ropes them into its story line: For instance, the exaggerated sepia tones of the nineteenth-century photographs connote both nostalgic longing and jaundiced disgust, while the blue tint in the portrayals of imperial statues still lording over London compounds their distant coldness.

The skillful use of sound tracks builds on Signs of Empire’s palimpsest-like visual density, comprising an affective assemblage of appropriated political speeches, synthesized ambient sounds, and poetic voice-overs. Soon after the work begins, the inspiring orchestral strings of Wagner’s overture to Das Rheingold play as the slides’ cycling titles declare: “In the beginning—the textual—the archive—imperialism . . . the hinterlands of narratives—the impossible fiction of tradition.” Later, two archival audio recordings are joined in a repeated counterpoint: Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell praising the British Commonwealth’s “multicultural association of independent nations, stretching across five continents,” and Conservative politician Ronald Bell lamenting the social disorientation of immigrants’ offspring who “don’t know who they are or what they are.” These clips underscore the multiple valences of BAFC’s work as much as they capture the hypocrisy of empire.

The effect of Signs of Empire is further intensified by the emphasis on the junctures and disjunctures between slides, those nebulous spaces “between myth and history—between force and meaning,” as the text on one slide reads. Exploiting the radical potential of the slide show as a medium, the cycle continually evokes those sites where images break down or have yet to be constructed. With Signs of Empire, BAFC suggest the negation of illusion and fiction and intimate the possible contribution of a creative consciousness to the invention of the past’s unrealized futures.

The group’s subsequent films advance the audiovisual montage strategy of this early work in various ways. In what would become a characteristic move, Handsworth Songs underlines the heterogeneity of its sources, as representatives from Birmingham’s Afro-Caribbean, Sikh, and British-Asian communities reframe the city’s riots from several different perspectives. The sequencing of the shots is resolutely disjointed and nonchronological, so that the film, instead of privileging any single account, produces a dialogic telling of the past, ever open to new negotiations. In later films such narrative discrepancies are intensified by combining archival footage with staged scenes: Seven Songs for Malcolm X, for example, features both documentation of Malcolm’s mesmerizing political speeches and tableaux vivants emblematizing moments from his 1964 autobiography. Rather than merely affirming the now-clichéd postmodernist view that all history is subjective and plural, BAFC’s methodology serves to demonstrate how the contingency of historical truth necessarily transforms it into a site of political struggle.

Moreover, their deconstruction of documentary truth has a parallel in the group’s critique of essentialist concepts of identity. A sensitivity to the multiplicity of being is not surprising, given the African, Caribbean, and British genealogies of the seven individuals in the collective—John Akomfrah, Reece Auguiste, Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, Trevor Mathison, Edward George, and Claire Johnson and her post-1985 replacement, David Lawson. Rejecting the notion that blackness already existed as a knowable thing—and therefore merely required exposure—the group questioned what Akomfrah termed the “figuration of ethnicity in cinema,” and invented new ways of envisioning blackness that would acknowledge its complex singularity and historical formation, its discursive inscription, and its sociopolitical entanglements. “What, after all, does ‘black independent film-making’ mean . . . ?” Akomfrah asked in 1983.

The color black itself operates in various ways in BAFC’s films. From the beginning, the group confronted the fact that the exposure protocols of mainstream film were traditionally biased toward tones ideal for Caucasian skin and so tended to obscure darker complexions. In one telling clip in Handsworth Songs, a producer at a televised community meeting comments that too many black faces are throwing the rest of the audience into near invisibility. To make Testament (1988), which tells the story of an expatriate television reporter who returns to Ghana after the 1966 military coup ending Kwame Nkrumah’s socialist government, BAFC lowered the threshold of exposure and used more color filters to produce sumptuous shadows and tinted atmospheres, seeming to imply memory’s distanced and traumatic relation to the past. Here, as throughout their work, BAFC show blackness as something invented rather than innate, historically shifting and aesthetically elusive, always involving an unknown quantity.

The exhibition’s final gallery contained an installation titled The Black Room, 2007, which relayed the extraordinary richness of the discursive world informing BAFC’s theoretical and formal decisions. Comprising eight vertical vitrines housing those books and record albums that make up the group’s formative sources—from W. E. B. DuBois and Jacques Lacan to Alexander Kluge, from Thelonious Monk and Diamanda Galás to Krzysztof Penderecki—the abbreviated inventory hinted at BAFC’s significance as a massive pedagogical engine. Throughout its existence, the group supplemented its filmmaking by organizing seminars and workshops in film theory and production, and by curating film programs in avant-garde cinema from India, Brazil, Senegal, and elsewhere. In engaging in such activities in addition to their own creative output, BAFC generated discussion around issues of postcolonial film, the crisis in documentary, and the entwinement of aesthetics and politics—building new audiences for their work along the way, for none could be assumed. This retrospective proposed a continuance of BAFC’s legacy, offering contemporary audiences a unique opportunity to consider this remarkable ensemble in all its startling breadth, artistic brilliance, and historical relevance.

“The Ghosts of Songs: A Retrospective of the Black Audio Film Collective” travels to the Arnolfini in Bristol, England, Apr. 28–June 24.

T. J. Demos’s new book, The Exiles of Marcel Duchamp, is being published this month by MIT Press.