John Akomfrah in conversation with Anthony Downey discussing his multi-channel installation Purple (2017).
John Akomfrah in Conversation with Anthony Downey
Anthony Downey (left) and John Akomfrah (right) in conversation, 12 October 2017
The following edited transcript of a conversation between John Akomfrah and Anthony Downey took place at the Barbican Centre’s Curve Gallery on 12 October 2017. The event coincided with Akomfrah’s installation of his six-channel film Purple in the gallery (6 October 2017 – 7 January 2018) and begins with a discussion of the film’s main ideas and how the artist’s interest in ‘clearing the stage’ enabled him to invite new elements into both the film and into his working practice. Although Purple has a starting point in aspects of Akomfrah’s biography, its subject matter is much broader and far-reaching taking in, as it does, the so-called Anthropocene epoch. The latter term is being widely used to designate a period in which human activity has shifted from being a ‘biological agent’ ‒ impacting on a specific and largely localised environment ‒ to becoming a ‘geological agent’; capable, that is, of radically altering the world’s relatively stable climate patterns.
Non-linear in its approach, and utilising archival footage alongside newly-shot scenes from ten countries (including Alaska, Arctic Greenland, to the volcanic Maquesas Islands), Purple offers a timely meditation on the other elements that influence and indeed undermine our sense of sovereign being in the world. It does so by asking a number of fundamental questions: what, for one, is it to experience the Anthropocene through the body and the mind, rather than as an abstraction? What is it, in sum, to have grown up in an era where humankind has left an indelible trace of its own activities and, as a result, threatened its future sustainability as a species? And how, this film asks, will these changes affect the fundamentals of life, such as memory and the ability to understand the present and future as subjective, human realities? Summoning as it does the ‘vital materialism’ that affects our very understanding of the non-human, elemental forces that act upon our world and those who inhabit it, the film also prompted a profound exploration by the artist into his own approach to bringing together archival footage and newly-shot film.
Anthony Downey I wanted to begin this conversation on a subject that John and I have spoken about recently in relation to Purple, specifically the idea of the ‘actant’ which is an idea that runs through significant elements of the philosopher Bruna Latour’s work. Discussing Purple, you have said that you had the ‘actant’ – the activity of which is often described as a form of mediation by Latour – almost like an extra character in the film. It is the elemental, non-material, non-subjective forces that work upon the subjects and subject of the film. You have also referred to it as the non-human element, or the ‘vital materialism’ (to use Jane Bennett’s phrase), that pervades the film in general. Could you talk about this non-elemental force, the ‘vital materialism’ that underwrites this epic film?
John Akomfrah Yes, of course. The element that is not and never is self-evident are some of the motivations, or spurs, that animate what you are watching. So one way of approaching this question of the actant, or Bruno Latour’s new materialist philosophy and how it impacts on this project, is to see it in this way: There is an on-going post-war debate about the stage of being, and who should be on that stage acting and being – who populates this stage? And for a long time that debate between, broadly speaking, followers of Martin Heidegger was focused on who else was on that stage, apart from you, the apparent, sovereign subject. This Heideggerian question no longer feels so abstract in our time, nor indeed academic, because in many ways I think all of us – emotionally, psychically and intellectually – have the sense that we are not the only beings on the stage of being. You sense this whether you’re talking about the weather, or climate, or even geomorphological shifts in time and space. We are not on our own, there are other actors on the stage with us; they are the non-human, the non-subjective, but all the more apparent elements that form the stage of being.
So whilst the ‘actant’ as a term sounds abstract, it applies to this work in a very specific sense inasmuch as I was very keen to clear the deck as it were, to say to myself and to this project: listen, let us just agree prior to doing this that we will not have an agent who says ‘it’s about me’, a central sovereign subject. Nor is it really about the weather, nor about climate change as such; rather it is about inviting in all the actors and then mediating between them through the elemental, vital components that you see in the film – the wind, the rain, the snow, the air we breathe – and those very things that animate the stage of being. To do that you have to clear the stage and then invite each actor back onto it. What could you say in a post-Anthropocenic dialogue to all of these actors – that is a question I wanted to pose. And in doing so, the idea was to then speak to them each individually by inviting them to come on to the cleared stage, to take up a screen. At some point, you are not in control of this process. I am not even the conductor of this at a certain point. I am just one of the players in this drama of becoming. But what I am able to do is to try to tease out each layer of the film by forcing it to just engage with the other, you know, and slowly something called Purple emerges.
AD You mentioned a word there that has become more and more common of late, namely, the Anthropocene. I wanted to talk a little bit more about that, because it’s a complex notion. It potentially represents a fatal period of time, an epoch in which a number of authors have claimed we will face, if we are not already facing, the so-called ‘sixth extinction’ (which will be a manmade extinction, a total annihilation of mankind). Given the complexity of that idea, and we have talked elsewhere about the formal functioning of a six-screen filmic presentation such as this, did you feel that the idea itself was so utterly overwhelming that you had to, at some point, reconfigure or rethink your entire approach to film-making, both conceptually and formally?
JA I think that’s a fair comment on this film insofar as one of the things that I knew we were trying to do was, to borrow a phrase from my good friend Bonaventure Ndikung, was to sequestrate or appropriate layers – both of time and space – so in the film I am commandeering people and ideas – literally, in a legal sense – to come to the ‘court’ of a narrative. And those are either chapters in the post-war unfolding of industrialisation, chapters to do with accidents, independencies of different kinds (whether they are communist ideologies or ideals concerning national liberation), individual chapters on the loss of one’s parent (which are personal ones); all of which remain unique, they are all separate, they are all individual and are usually quite reluctant to come together on a single-screen, or even in a three-screen film. And the more you multiply the screens the more reluctant they are to talk, especially to you or to each other. So you literally have to sequestrate them, you have to slap a writ at their door saying, you know you are wanted; you are needed here! And they come reluctantly. So there’s no logical dialogue between storms and people shopping, for example, but there can be one, if you force them. And that’s what I mean by the sequestrations: you have to force them to engage with each other; and literally in this space of montage where things are being forced to clash with each other, something starts to merge. Now I don’t know in advance of that what will emerge, but once I smell it, we’re off. So the works start in effect at that moment of sequestration and convergence, when these screens are forced to have this dialogue with and amongst themselves.
AD You mentioned the personal elements in this film and the impersonal sense of the sheer magnitude of the Anthropocene seems to go against the intimacy of personalised narratives. But for you there is a very specific, autobiographical trend to this film and elements of its narrative trajectories?
JA Yes, I did mention the autobiographical element but let me put that into perspective: I’m a child of the fifties, so I’m a child of that moment of high hopes, one of which involved the bright hope associated with industrialisation that came with a much darker narrative that remained unspoken but nevertheless ran alongside this development. That darker narrative was a kind of regime, a deadly regime of poisoning – mass poisoning, in effect. I grew up in west London in the shadow of Battersea Power Station, at a time when it still worked producing electricity. And I remember its iconic chimneys and the smoke billowing from them, which was, in truth, beautiful. I still like the look of carbon monoxide; it’s such a fantastic shape. I love watching it. No-one ever said to me or to any of my friends, listen, you’re being poisoned here, and this is a by-product of the life you’re living, walking down the King’s Road, as a young boy, you are being poisoned, but no-one ever said it. So the project is very autobiographical in that sense; it’s about trying to revisit that moment again to see how much of the unspoken – that which was not said at the time – I can now bring together into some kind of dialogue. And the Anthropocene only matters in this debate, for me at least, as a marker of sorts. And the marker is not what it means politically as such – which is of course important – but what it means for our practice; what it means for making work. If the Anthropocene is a backdrop to our present-day existence then it must necessarily throw up certain ethical, aesthetic and formal questions about how one makes work. And that’s really all I’m trying to do – I am trying to register that difference, the before and after the realisation that the Anthropocene is real, and then see how to proceed on the basis of that.
AD I noticed in the film that a number of figures recur, including Gamal Abdul Nasser (president of Egypt, 1956–1970), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghanaian President, 1960–1966), Jawaharlal Nehru (prime minister of India, 1947–1964) and Josip Broz Tito (president of Yugoslavia, 1953–1980), who were all, alongside Sukarno, the president of Indonesia from 1945–1967, members of the Non-Aligned Movement. These were all figures who were held in high esteem by many in their efforts to counter the East/West divide with an alternative movement, a non-aligned movement that was largely situated in the so-called Global South rather than the industrialised northern hemisphere. It occurred to me that when you show them – going back to this notion of high hopes – that there is a sense of an alternative history or path that was not taken, or an attempt to go back and see what potentially could have been, is that a fair comment to make?
JA Yes and no. There’s a way in which the longue durée of this – the long term historical structures – starts with the earliest forms of primitive accumulation, which was, you’re right, capitalist accumulation, but not exclusively. In part Africa, in particular enslaved Africans, ended up in the New World in the fifteenth century, in the 1450s to be precise, because someone was trying to dig tin in the mines of Mexico and Peru. Now that longue durée, as I want to call it for now, became so all-encompassing that I’m not sure the communist narrative necessarily side-stepped it or offered an alternative. In fact one of the engines, and you find in very early texts by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin – and it is certainly there in Mao Zedong’s work, and in Jawaharlal Nehru’s writings to some extent (where he explores the idea that in order to catch up with the others; the others being the European others) – they needed to get on the industrial escalator fairly quickly. Anyone who’s been listening to radio recently, in October 2017, would be amazed at the explosiveness of the Russian Revolution – both culturally and aesthetically – but did it circumvent and overcome the big question, the industrial imperative, I don’t think so.
John Akomfrah, still frames from Purple, 2017 © Smoking Dogs Films, Courtesy Lisson Gallery
AD Returning to the film and this idea of historical narrative, although the film is far from fatalistic, there is a lot of archival footage alongside newly-produced footage. Can you talk about this newly-produced film, where was it filmed and why, especially when we consider its relationship to the archival footage?
JA I should say I was never totally in charge here when it came to choosing the final destinations. The difference between my work now and what we were doing two decades ago is that I work very explicitly with that idea of a shared ontology, the idea that there are other shared elements that go into the practice. So there is no agenda as such – formal, aesthetic, or cultural – to any of these shoots, we literally think of places that will feel of interest, and you go.
AD But you do not just wake up one morning and think I am off to Alaska and then pack up and go!
JA No, you definitively do not do that. I suppose what I mean is that there is no overt agenda in choosing these places, but they do have to be interesting. The real question here is what makes them interesting. Alaska was interesting because we had been there before, to make a film on the oil spill – the Exxon Valdez oil spill – in 1989. I knew that these were places that would be worth revisiting and seeing again. Tahiti and the Marquesas, one the other hand, were new to me, I had never been to either before. But it seemed worth trying to get to the furthest point away from here that I could get to and see what imprint there was; whether the landscape and other elemental forces – the water, sea and light – spoke to me in the same way as they do when I’m in Skye in Scotland.
AD Could you explain the relevance of Skye to the audience, as I know it is an important place for you.
JA I’ve been going there for so long now it’s difficult to explain. The first time I went was the year my mother died, so there’s an elegiac attachment to it because of that history. I also went there because my favourite British director Michael Powell (1905–1990) made that his place, and spent a lot of time at both the Isle of Mull or Skye. So I went, in effect, as a kind of homage to see what he saw. Powell made one of the great films of that period, I Know Where I’m Going! (1944), on nearby Mull, which made full use of the weather on the islands. I was interested in that and the way in which things – light, for example – behave with me on Skye in a way that they do not do anywhere else. I don’t know whether it’s the proximity to a certain kind of light, or whether I’m a sucker for punishment because it’s always snowing or raining or windy when we’re there. But what I can tell you is that every time it’s a little bit like a song about meeting your old friend. I go there and we literally do not have an idea or a plan. If an idea comes I would say to myself and to David Lawson: you know, I would like to talk to this particular light or place, because we would then have to prepare certain things – costumes and props – and then take it from there and let things emerge, so to speak. But Skye itself as a place, is never the same; it always says something different to me. And in all of the places have to speak first – that’s where the conversation starts.
AD So, this is about waiting for, or letting things emerge, in relation to certain places and spaces, in Alaska or in Tahiti, for example, and letting them begin to develop a dialogue with one another?
JA Yes, that is certainly part of it.
AD But there is also a sense that these images only make fuller sense, or fully emerge, in relation to the archival footage that is being used. And the archival material used in Purple is drawn from very specific and resonant sources, some of which I recognised, some of which I didn’t, as it seems you’d only recognise these images if you were born in England at a certain point in time, the fifties, early sixties and so forth. Could you talk about that archival material that’s been used in Purple?
JA The archival material relates, in part, to what T S Eliot called ‘visions and revisions’. I am both seeing and re-looking at things, so to speak. The BBC has millions of feet of film, and partly what you use to navigate your way around such abundance is determined by what you’ve seen before. So there are certain strands, or genres – news, current affairs – that after working with that library since the 1980s, I know where I’m heading. I know what to look for. So we literally build, fresco-like, everything fragment by fragment. And the trick is to be open enough to know when something’s not going to work and just let it go. I saw some incredible stuff when making this film and I would try to force it to speak to other footage, but some fragments have a kind of refusenik aura about them and say ‘No, I was made in 1962, I’m a single-screen piece, I will not take part in this jamboree with you, not this time.’ So, if I had to summarise my approach to the archive, it’s in part steeped in a deep pragmatism which is about utilising my knowledge of the archival vault, which has been built up over decades of working with it, and knowing when to let go. There is also a second kind of investment at work here, one that involves a democratic ethos of sorts whereby things are able to make suggestions to you, suggestions about their agency, their ontology, their identity and their future but the trick is to just remain sufficiently humble in these situations and accept their autonomy and allow a dialogue to emerge between the animate and the inanimate.
AD In this instance, and if you are going to talk about the autonomy or the agency of specific images, then you have to bear that through both in the aesthetic form and formal processes that the film takes. It seems to me that the six-channel format enables a decentralisation of any singular agency and multiplies it, pluralises it, to the extent that the notion of sovereignty itself is what is being broken down: the sovereignty of a singular historical narrative, the sovereignty of a singular subject, and it’s being visually and conceptually decentralised – is that part of the film’s formal aesthetic process?
JA Possibly, but the complication is this: as an ardent poststructuralist I am very committed to decentralising and processes of decentralisation. At the same time, I am also aware that this act of decentralising or de-hierarchising speaks to the ideal of a new order to come. So, the question then concerns the elements that we rely on for forcing this potential new order to be in place. One element is obviously concerned with authorship because every single one of these films that we use, and the photographs, and even the spaces we visit, are films, images, and spaces that have been brought into being in some way by somebody else. There isn’t one piece of footage, nor one clip in there that someone didn’t spend a lot of time to make.
I’ve got films in there shot by David Storey who would go on to do all sorts of things with his life, but this is one of the things he does when he’s in his twenties. You know that and you feel a certain responsibility to this. So yes, there is an element of rip it up and then start again, decentralise and de-hierarchise, but you need to acknowledge the precedents and multiple agencies, that made this a possible in the first place. As I sequestrate these images to orchestrate this new fugue, this film called Purple, I want them to bear the trace of what they once were and their innate autonomy. The idea of the multi-screen is precisely that: that you would allow these multiple agents to have agency and have it in a way that suggests that things can make sense.
AD You mentioned the term fugue there which suggests another term, contrapunto, or counterpoint, which describes how phrases or melodies are layered over one another. A lot has been written about how your work relates to montage, which I always understood as juxtaposition rather than counterpoint, or layering. I am wondering if that distinction works in relation to Purple?
JA Yes, you’re right to point towards that element, montage is just one layer of the philosophy of cinema; the other is the space that montage developed in Soviet Russia at the turn of the last century, and that is to do with orchestration. The relationship between Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Eisenstein was very deep, and they both fed off one another’s work. The notion of orchestration in the musical and non-musical sense is really important for multi-screen work, because ultimately what we are trying to do is to force things into recognisable motifs that are not readily recognisable. You then want to set up some kind of dialogue between them. So once you’ve got all of these different antimonies, antiphonies, and counterpoints going, something needs to orchestrate it. This is not just about the layering of images but also the actual sound of the film and how it relates to the various images and screens. I don’t like the overly-regimented Leni Riefenstahl-style approach where everything is dancing to the same tune as it were, you know? This is about trying to offer something that feels Wagnerian, feels total, but they are discreet components that are basically doing their own thing. So we spent a lot of time devising a sonic palette, a technical palette that would make it possible.
AD What happens to time in that moment? Because what you are playing with ultimately is time – not just visual, not just audio – but actual time unfolding. I know that two of the biggest influences on your work are Chris Marker and Theo Angelopoulos. Both of them work with time, albeit in very different ways. Marker often overtly (in his looping of time, for example), and Angelopoulos in a much more abstracted, protracted manner. Could you talk about what happens with time in relation to Purple?
JA The two paths that you’ve just mentioned were the children of two other fathers really, namely Sergei Eisenstein and Alexander Dovzhenko, both of them offer two compelling possibilities for the development of the temporal in the moving image. Dovzhenko invested on duration and rhythm, both of which are sort of overarching elements in his films.
AD Which is a good way of describing the visuals in this film: rhythm and duration working together.
JA Yes, but you’re having to make decisions about when they come together and when they stay at opposite sides of the spectrum, you know? The whole, and the reason I have problems with Riefenstahl approach – apart from the fact that she’s a Nazi, which I obviously have a problem with – is that she attempts to keep duration and rhythm apart. So for instance if I was trying to devise a rain sequence, I know we have material that we’ve shot and material that’s been shot by numerous camera people from the archives at the BBC. I know because I’ve collected it, I’ve gone film by film looking for a specific shot, which are mainly from television, so the shots are going to be of a specific duration. The other shots, the ones I am shooting, can afford to be longer or shorter. So immediately you are into this very real conversation about rhythm and duration, and their relationship to the overall temporal element of a film such as Purple.
Questions such as what the length of my shot should be in order for the affected proximity that I need to take place between two images. Do I make the BBC ones shorter or slow them down to make them longer? You know these are kind of practical questions we deal with – me and Lara, my editor – on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute basis. But they also have this fundamental ethical core at the heart of them, which is how much do you basically collapse two foundational narrative and temporal principles: do you have things long so that people can disappear into the image, or very short so you can have a machine-like rhythm. The short says it’s about the whole, the totality, and I am going to construct that whole for you. The longer shot, the Dovzhenko-like approach, does not want that, it wants duration. The decision that I make between the two – and how they affect the temporality of the film – is precisely the ethic of the practice that I am involved with: how do you make these opposites talk to each other without doing violence to either.
AD One of the key things, one of the things we have spoken about from the outset, was the notion of a ‘materialism’, the forces of disruption that come to play upon not only the elemental world and the singular self, but the reality in which we live. I want to move away from Purple and speak very briefly to Vertigo Sea, a work in which there seems to be a similar degree of ‘vital materialism’, one that is focused more on the ocean, that which brings everything together. The ocean is also that which allows you to play with time and space in a way that you wouldn’t be able to do necessarily in a narrative form. You would have to provide certain sort of singular places where you talk about things, preferably in a linear narrative, but the ocean in Vertigo Sea allows you to dispense with that and move across different historical periods – from the sixteenth century to the present-day – and draw in an array of narratives, from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) to Heathcote Williams’s Whale Nation (1988). Could you talk a little bit about Vertigo Sea in the context of Purple because the latter is the second in a quartet of films, so Purple literally and metaphorically, and indeed allegorically, speaks back to Vertigo Sea.
JA You need to go back to the two figures that you mentioned before, Purple is almost certainly Markeresque whilst Vertigo Sea is more Angelopoulos-like. Purple is also kind of a verbatim transcript of Derek Walcott’s 2007 poem ‘A Sea is History’ where you are confronted with different orders of temporality and with shifts from the land to the aquatic. In Vertigo Sea, you know that time is not the same in this realm, there are all manner of governing forces when you enter the sea. When I used to try to understand the logic of the late-night shipping forecast, I couldn’t, it was absolute doggerel to me, but when you go to sea, it suddenly makes sense. There are different orders of temporality operating and organising the spaces between the land and sea and it is important to be cognisant of these orders of temporality and how they work in each project you undertake.
AD And Vertigo Sea allowed you to literally put a narrative together which conjoins Heathcote Williams, Herman Melville, the slave trade, and the conditions of refugees in what has become the largest humanitarian crisis post-war, and it was enabled through the vital materialism of the ocean – not through narrative, not through subjects, not through agencies as such, but through that actual ocean itself.
JA Yes, exactly. In doing though, you recognise certain constants. A lot of people have been dying at sea pretty much the same way for half a millennia. And that constant itself tempers the desire to do this conceptual gymnastics where things are fluid. It’s about recognising the continuities that sit sometimes alongside the discontinuities. You know so if you make a fetish of discontinuity you miss that, you miss the fact that if you’re a Chilean political activist and you get thrown from a helicopter into the Atlantic, or an FLN activist in Algiers being thrown by one of these French army colonels in 1958 into the Mediterranean, which are of course two different events, but both involve death by drowning. You are dying by drowning. And those deaths seem to have a role to play in organising the texture, temperature and the temper of the sea itself and, in turn, organise the visual rhythm and narrative of Vertigo Sea.
AD Would it be fair to say that Vertigo Sea seems to speak to a past – that of the transatlantic slave trade, for example – that informs the present, we could think here of the many deaths at sea in the Mediterranean over last five years but Purple, on the other hand, is more anachronistic, it’s more out of its time. It’s not necessarily speaking to the future or the past, as such, but it’s speaking to another dimension of time itself?
JA In Purple, I did want to do something about rhythms and cadences, but also of circularities. So there’s certain circularities in this film, certain loops that speak to another time. And part of that is how we relate to time and narrative itself: most of your life you are made to feel as if you are incidental to the plot-line, whereas actually you are the plot, you are the time, so to speak.
AD We need to end, but before we do can you enlighten the audience as to why you chose the title Purple for this film?
JA Yes, it is a homage to Prince. I like the song ‘Purple Rain’ it’s a great song. I like the emotions behind the song, I like the idea of the space of elegy and regret that ‘Purple Rain’ is really about. And purple as a colour seems such a resonant, valuable colour. It’s this inter-zone colour, and blue making it. And that somehow seemed to resonate with me at the time of making this film.
AD I found a quote for you from Prince earlier whilst researching the film, and it goes like this ‘Life is just a party, but parties aren’t meant to last.’ Which I thought, given the subject matter of Purple, its temporal and filmic exploration of life and death and the larger elemental forces that affect both, was very elegiac.
The interviewer would like to thank Leila Hassam (Curator, Barbican Centre) and David Lawson (Smoking Dogs Films) for, respectively, facilitating this interview and providing additional material and images.
Anthony Downey is a member of the Editorial Board of Third Text and Professor of Visual Culture in the Middle East and North Africa within the Faculty of Arts, Design and Media at Birmingham City University. Recent and upcoming publications include Zones of Indistinction: Contemporary Visual Culture and the Cultural Logic of Late-Modernity (forthcoming, Sternberg Press, 2019), Don’t Shrink Me to the Size of a Bullet: The Works of Hiwa K (Walther König Books, 2017), Future Imperfect: Contemporary Art Practices and Cultural Institutions in the Middle East (Sternberg Press, 2016), and Art and Politics Now (Thames and Hudson, 2014). He is the series editor for Visual Culture in the Middle East (Sternberg Press).