Visualising Blackness: Handsworth Songs and Documents of Police Brutality

“The question today is not so much can the subaltern speak, for the new global networks of technicity have solved this problem with ruthless precision, but where and how the subaltern speaks, or indeed is forced to speak. It is not so much a question of can but does, not so much a politics of exclusion as a politics of subsumption.”

 

- Alexander R. Galloway[i]

 

 

Saidiya Hartman, in a recent conversation with John Akomfrah and Tina Campt, says “the opportunity of revisiting Handsworth [Songs] right now is to actually subject ourselves to echoes.” [ii] Echoes between past and present injustices, echoes of Cherry Groce in Breonna Taylor, echoes of disaffection manifesting in looting, rioting, protest. Handsworth Songs is the coming together of images documenting the then present-day and visual documents of the past, severed from colonial archives; of people coming to the UK from the colonies, receptive to the Queen’s call to rebuild the “Mother Country”, [iii] and the ensuing discontent at the racism, rampant unemployment and police brutality they faced in return. The similarities in, and clear trajectory from, past to present create an echo and exhibit a cycle: an imperialist state’s continued exercise of power over formerly colonised peoples.

 

 

 

In revisiting Handsworth Songs today, just as it was widely revisited after the 2011 riots in the UK, [iv] it is not difficult to recognise the echoes between the events taking place now and the events depicted in Handsworth Songs. However, it is also instructive to delve into how these echoes manifest aesthetically. While there are plenty of artist filmmakers who echo the political sentiments of the Black Audio Film Collective’s work more broadly (Morgan Quaintance’s Another Decade very directly addresses institutional racism and cultural amnesia, and Ja’Tovia Gary’s The Giverny Document [v] looks at the bodily safety and autonomy of Black women across contexts), echoes across dominant visual schemas have lost some of their ethical force.

 

 

The manifestation of a supposedly democratised image economy has meant that the impact of films like Handsworth Songs – screened widely to British audiences on Channel 4 at a time when the televisual and the cinematic reigned supreme as modes of image production – can no longer exist in the same way. The works of Quaintance and Gary, for example, are (usually but not exclusively) confined to galleries and film festivals, domains defined by their inaccessibility.

 

Despite the lack of fiscal support for artist filmmaking (in the UK at least) [vi], a black radical tradition continues, returning to an archive that has “become a function of Empire”, “an instrument not only of local, but of global power”, [vii] acting on the imperative to reclaim footage and thus remove it from a system that preserves inequality in the production of “objective” knowledge. This footage is, as a result, usually professionalised footage; PSA’s and interviews that imbue images with ontological certainty, validated by the state’s archival impulse. In this vein Göran Olsson is also notable – removing Swedish footage of this kind and returning it to Fanon to contextualise with reference to the colonised subject’s experience, [viii] or returning it to participants of the Black Power Movement, who very overtly interact with the footage as alien compared to their experience on the ground, undermining the authority and presumed objectivity of archival footage. [ix]

 

 

 

Clearly, there is value in the contemporary utilisation of the colonial archive for the reclamation and recreation of narratives regarding race, power and subjectivity. However, current dominant modes of image-making move well outside of artist filmmaking or even filmmaking proper, in a marked shift in how we interact with image production and circulation within contemporary archives.

 

Most visual encounters we have with mass unrest and police brutality today exist online, as shifts in aesthetic articulation allegorise the neoliberal project of corporate privatisation. As Wendy Chun writes: “the disappearance of publicly owned, publicly accessible spaces (where publicly owned means state owned) and the concurrent emergence of publicly accessible, privately owned spaces has driven the transformation of public/private to open/closed.” [x]

 

 

Whereas Akomfrah previously entered into the private colonial archive and brought to public view these images in conversation with the already public (although negatively homogenous) images of the 1985 riots, we are now all able to film and share videos online of police brutality, riots and protest free of charge. We can immediately make these images public to contest whatever the dominant narrative may be, and indeed, videos shared online become and inform the dominant narratives around certain issues; even screened on the news in place of the supposedly objective footage that became the mainstay of the colonial archive. However, we should be aware of what form the contemporary archive takes under the open/closed paradigm and how this impacts our ability to visualise echoes of injustice across time.

 

Twitter as a new archival practice no longer necessitates that the image be archived outside of its means of dissemination, it no longer means the yielding of the image to a private domain tasked with cataloguing the present for its future figuration as past. The archive is now ubiquitous and cannibalistic: “Archives […] can no longer be easily told apart from the environments that produce them. In fact Archives 4.0 become our environment.” [xi] Our constant interaction with and within this archive negates what can be done with what it stores, no longer separable from data flow or the profitability of information exchange. To gain power over the images themselves would not be to reclaim them, as they are produced and disseminated by us. Their distribution via platforms that are ostensibly free and open access limits what can be done in terms of reclamation, as we are enmeshed in the profit-making mechanism that turns the labour of sharing these videos into profit for an effaced corporate body. The reclamation of films from colonial archives allowed for a critical dissection of their modes of production and dissemination, through their removal and reframing. In the contemporary moment, it is much more difficult to extricate our videos from the archive as a means of critically reframing them outside of contemporary infrastructures of knowledge production.

 

 

The abuse of black people is presented amidst endless streams of discourse, alongside numerous other videos of violence at the hands of police, as well as the euphoric flames of riots and powerful exaltations at protests worldwide. These videos do not exist within a clear context of their own, primarily because the context of their existence is determined by their constant exchange, translated into profit. Where the footage in Handsworth Songs was contextualised by other images that reinforce a certain claim, videos of black death and racist violence are without stable context, authors or even their original Tweet. If the raison d’etre of these images outside of their evidentiary capacity is not to be stored for their value as historical moments, as evidence validated by a community rather than a state-employed archivist, but to be shared as much as possible to ensure profit is made, then context becomes irrelevant to its value, the material realities behind them are not what makes them valuable. Value lies in virality. Virality necessitates the effacement of material conditions in favour of presenting the horrific symptoms of these material conditions. The racism that breeds police brutality, and the money that funds the carceral state in order to then further feed racist ideologies cannot be visualised within one video of death, such as the murder of George Floyd by police. Death and abuse of black and brown people is a symptom, which we are encouraged to engage with more than and above its cause – not for our benefit, but for the benefit of profit.

 

These videos have encouraged those who can draw from contexts they personally understand to take action, appealing to a broader knowledge and personal experiences of racism, to which the immense affect of watching a black man die at the hands of the state only adds. In this case, videos of police brutality act as evidence, thus validating experiences of racism that would have otherwise been swept under the rug. These videos are also a valuable call to action, clearly heard by so many across the globe – but in terms of acting against injustice, those who act have been hearing echoes across time without the need for visual aids. This leads me to question who these videos are for, why we share them and what the broader ideological purpose is of viewing black death and abuse in particular.

 

In watching these videos with contexts deliberately effaced by their means of distribution, we are faced primarily with the fact of blackness, which Frantz Fanon identifies as the condition whereby “[…] the corporeal schema crumbled, its place taken by a racial epidermal schema.” [xii] Blackness is certain, violence is certain, death is certain. Through these certainties we can rely on these videos to inform broader discussions regarding injustice, racism and police brutality. But isolated from discussion, they lack the contextualisation and the experientiality that builds a corporeal schema, thus reducing these certainties to symbols of injustice. We can be certain that most viewers will be faced with the emotive charge of watching a person die or be beaten, accommodated by a platform that does not necessitate any further engagement before being abandoned to the closed archive, from which it cannot be separated. Vivian Sobchack simply demarcates our position: “[…] electronic presence randomly disperses its being across a network, its kinetic gestures describing and lighting on the surface of the screen rather than inscribing it with bodily dimension (a function of centered and intentional projection).[…] All surface, electronic space cannot be inhabited by any body that is not also an electronic body.” [xiii]

 

 

Relinquished to an endless stream of content, fleeting encounters with these videos allow them to operate as emotionally charged, isolated symbols: a human life the symbol of racism; black squares a flat, denuded and reductive aesthetic reference to black people, supposedly a show of solidarity; a hashtag welcomed by neoliberal corporations who too want to show to the world that they can symbolically align with black people in the struggle that is being alive and racialised, but not the struggle that is being alive and imposing this aliveness so as to secure actual legal rights, decent housing, job opportunities etc. These symbols appeal to corporations and those with the neoliberal desire to preserve the status quo, who respond in kind. Symbolic solidarity keeps us in stasis through a cycle of fleeting image exchange that does not translate into material benefit. These images, intended as evidence made by us, when given over to Twitter, no longer function for us but for the solicitation of white guilt, which can proliferate as hashtags and black squares to be palatably shared and thus profited from: online infrastructures, much like the carceral state, profit from the abuse of black people.

                                                                                                       

Dematerialised and disembodied symbolism online also calls for the revision of symbols in our material environment, evident in the response by protestors to burn symbols of capital (Target, Wendy’s) and drown symbols of imperialism (Colston statue). While I experience a euphoric rush seeing these symbols quashed and fully support this action as the fomentation of the people’s latent desires, something Akomfrah also mentioned in this recent discussion is that they would have never thought of tearing down statues in ’85. This can be construed as a positive trajectory towards action, but is also indicative of our contemporary climate, in which the dismantling of symbols becomes a vital step towards the dismantling the structures that build these symbols. Whether or not this is an effective route to change depends on how we move forward when these events are recorded and the videos in turn, are collected by the ephemeral archive of Twitter and re-distributed as symbols in the endless cycle of visual exchange; “[…] correlatively experienced as abstract, ungrounded, and flat—a site (or screen) for play and display rather than an invested situation in which action counts rather than computes.” [xiv]

 

 

 

 

This cycle of symbolism validates the racial epidermal schema, while the corporal schema, and in extension, the political schema is considered an infraction. Political allegiances and the power of moving beyond symbolism is not profitable, as BLMUK have paid the price for in showing solidarity with the people of occupied Palestine. These pronouncements are deemed threatening: an indication of moving beyond visual symbols that can easily be subsumed into a neoliberal order precisely because they are apolitical and undemanding.

 

This is why the elevation of the racial epidermal schema above the corporeal schema is something to be wary of. It is both the demotion of a person to their racial signifiers whilst imbuing onto this racial signifier a new way through which profit can be made. Blackness is now commercially viable as racism is validated symbolically: blackness is very much en vogue when it does not come with the demand for the eradication of actual imperial power, the subjugation of any people in favour of profit or a call for freedom that exceeds the free market, rather than being defined by easy movement within the free market. [xv]

 

 

Blackness, as a geographically and materially de-contextualised signifier, has been assimilated into online visual vernacular under various guises. We must be wary of how our identity is deployed. Racism was not borne of ignorance: race has always been a tool of political power play, a tool to validate one as the prospering class while the other is the labouring class (remember when the Irish and Jewish peoples weren’t white?). Visualising blackness in a vacuum that digitally flattens and disperses the black body risks removing it from the context from which it was conceptualised, and under which it lives on in favour of maintaining an ideological order where there must always be a subjugated, labouring class. The nature of racism has evolved in accordance with changes in how power is deployed. Although we are able to evidence the oppressive force of disciplinary power in footage of police brutality, it is far more difficult to articulate the neoliberal project that offers us a sense of freedom whilst supressing a re-evaluation of the powers that actively deny us complete freedom. Under a control society freedom is free movement within the free market; freedom is free speech; freedom is being able to disseminate evidence, information and content without recourse to an author, curator or archivist and most importantly, without having to pay. But if we are not paying, what or who becomes the product? [xvi]

 

 

Changes in archival practice and what constitute democratised visual economies are indicative of the fact that we ultimately lack the freedom (or power) that is presupposed by the easy recording and exchange of videos. Speaking of freedom necessitates a return to Fanon, who reminds us that we have to fight for freedom in order to be liberated, freedom in all senses of the word, cannot be freely given, because much like in the case of digital infrastructures, this constitutes a false freedom, in which we move from “one way of life to another, but not from one life to another.” [xvii]

 

By way of conclusion, we should return to our bodies, lived as well as represented, and how these earthly, temporal and experiential things of ours cannot be liberated online:

 

“[…] unlike cinematic representation, electronic representation by its very structure phenomenologically diffuses the fleshly presence of the human body and the dimensions of that body’s material world. However significant and positive its values in some regards, however much its very inventions and use emerge from lived-body subjects, the electronic tends to marginalize or trivialize the human body.” [xviii]

 

The online “space” is not neutral: online, there is no escape from the innocuous operations of capital. The free-floating diffusion of experience into flat online streams/screens of consciousness has no guarantee of translation back into our experience of our bodies or of being (offline). The seamless subsumption of black bodies into online visual vernacular, in place of nuanced, politicised anti-racist discourse and sites for solidarity beyond the exchange of symbols is stimulated by images of violence against black people. This violence, flattened out into symbols free from bodies, wilfully ignores embodiment in favour of profit. This was not our intention, yet our intention is not of any consequence online, because when we relinquish visual evidence of black bodily harm to the likes of Twitter, it becomes something else, for someone else. Behind closed doors, intention is articulated on our behalf, for corporate material benefit.

 

 

Words by Miranda Mungai.

 

As a donation allowed for the possibility of commissioning these works, Miranda has chosen to donate her fee to The Free Black Uni Fund and Make Rojava Green Again, and encourages readers to consider donating to these causes.

 

 

[i] Alexander R. Galloway, The Interface Effect, (Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012), 128.

[ii] https://www.lissongallery.com/studio/john-akomfrah-tina-campt-saidiya-hartman

[iii] Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanna Scafe, The Heart of the Race, (London, UK: Verso, 2018), 49.

[iv] https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/comment/land-still-lies-handsworth-songs-and-english-riots

[v]The Giverny Document, dir. Ja’Tovia Gary (2019) is now available to view for free online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVbpaFFrYlc

[vi] Dan Ward, “The Politics of Production: a report on the conditions for producing ‘artists’ moving image’”, research report commissioned and published by City Projects (May 2019), 1-33.

[vii] Gabriella Giannachi, Archive Everything: Mapping the Everyday, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), 8. Emphasis added.

[viii] Concerning Violence, dir Göran Olsson (2014).

[ix] The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975, dir Göran Olsson (2011).

[x] Wendy Chun, Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 38.

[xi] Giannachi, Archive Everything, 23.

[xii] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks, (London, UK: Pluto Press, 2008), 84.

[xiii] Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, (Berkely and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2004), 159.

[xiv] Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts, 158.

[xv] Chun, Control and Freedom, 274.

[xvi] Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, October Vol. 59 (Winter, 1992), 3-7.

[xvii] Fanon, Black Skin White Masks, 171.

[xviii] Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts, 161.

 

Image Credits in order of appearance:

Handsworth Songs, dir John Akomfrah (1986)

Concerning Violence, dir Göran Olsson (2014)

Handsworth Songs, dir John Akomfrah (1986)

Colston drowned, Photo by Giulia Spadafora / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Wendy’s burning, Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

 

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