London

Tony Cokes, Testament A: MF FKA K-P X KE RIP, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 35 minutes 22 seconds.

Tony Cokes, Testament A: MF FKA K-P X KE RIP, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 35 minutes 22 seconds.

Tony Cokes

Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art

It feels like a misrepresentation to discuss the work of Tony Cokes using complete sentences. Just as lyrics need music, dialogue delivery, and quotations context, so, too, would consideration of Cokes’s videos benefit from an element of fracture and fragment, a framework of incompleteness that this paragraph cannot hope to accommodate.

Cokes employs a consistent formal template: Short phrases, clipped from essays, speeches, or reportage, slide across color-block backgrounds to the sound of hip-hop, pop, rock, or throbbing techno. But stable methodology is not synonymous with simplicity—or with legibility. For this work trades in what philosopher Christoph Cox terms “affect modulation,” or what I would call a re-confusion of confused ideals that are often presented as logical.

As was evidenced by the many stand-alone monitors of “If UR Reading This It’s 2 Late: Vol. 1,” Cokes’s videos integrate, at times concurrently, a cacophony of voices and viewpoints (Édouard Glissant, N.W.A., Donald Trump) as a means to reframe discussions of institutional power, state violence, and cultural production, as well as representations of race, gender, and identity. Wary of the manner in which mimetic imagery can overdetermine, and thus undermine, what it represents, Cokes invests in nonvisibility, illegibility, deficit.

His is a subversive remixing, or “dubbing,” of historico-political content intent on disrupting its preformed associations. As Cox writes in his book Sonic Flux: Sound, Art, and Metaphysics (2018), the “dub” of a reggae record “strips away a song’s melodic attractions in order to reveal its rhythmic and technological infrastructure.” Accordingly, Cokes’s Fade to Black, 1990, a potted history of black (mis)representation in cinema, and Evil.16 (Torture.Musik), 2009–11, a sonically disjointed account of the US military’s weaponization of music, are known-yet-new things. They are rescored stories of violence: dubbed historical narratives in which melodies of diversion are stripped back to expose the substructures of oppression upon which they were composed.

They are also dyspneic, dyschronometric, dizzy. To experience these works is to struggle to match pace: to be conscious that the prioritization of a single content stream will lead to the slippage of another. But here slippage is the key, as is the affect bleed that might well originate in the contiguity of sound, text, and form. In the artist’s own words, this work is “taking a train through a landscape while reading and also listening to music.”

Testament A: MF FKA K-P X KE RIP, 2019, cites the text of a commemorative lecture delivered by Kodwo Eshun at Goldsmiths, University of London, in 2018, a year after the death of the cultural theorist Mark Fisher. Set against a jarring color scheme of yellow and purple, the work is heavy with the presence of absence, thus evoking Fisher’s own writing on the subject of haunting (itself an ode to Derrida’s “hauntology”): “when a space is invaded or otherwise disrupted by a time that is out-of-joint.” Cokes’s work is haunted, also, by blackness. It floats through accounts of violence, victimization, and populism and weighs on the racial archaeology of techno that is excavated in Mikrohaus, or the black atlantic?, 2006–08. This is a ghostly methodology, preserved in technology. “Blackness is everywhere,” Cokes wrote in 2013. “It haunts and it repeats. Or it repeats, then it haunts.”

Cokes’s exhibition took its name from Drake’s 2015 mixtape, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. But how late is too late? Can any narrative become so fixed, finished, done that subsequent reading is untenable? For Cokes, such completionism is a false ideal; the myth of this ideal facilitates historiological coherence to ensure that dominant narratives remain unchallenged. Because, in truth, it is never too late: Things have rarely happened; they are only ever happening. While (personal, political) accounts often profess their permanence, imperiousness, and sheer imperviousness to retroactive critique, they can always be chopped and screwed, set to a new tempo and heard afresh.