John Akomfrah

As artists increasingly migrate into cinema, ArtReview catches up with one of Britain’s leading filmmakers to discuss the changing status of moving-image works in the worlds of art and cinema

By Mark Rappolt

The English director and screenwriter John Akomfrah is best known as one of the founders of the Black Audio Film Collective, active between 1982 and 1998, and dedicated to examining issues of black British identity through film and media. He has directed 14 films since 1986 and his work has been exhibited widely at venues including Documenta 11, Kassel, the Centre Pompidou, Paris, the Serpentine Gallery and Whitechapel Gallery, London, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. This October saw him return to the gallery setting with Hauntologies, a show at Carroll/Fletcher, London.

ArtReview: Do you approach your work differently when it’s made for a gallery setting?

John Akormfrah: Not so much in terms of the approach, but the expectations I have of myself are slightly different. The television and cinema pieces start in the same way – with a kind of commitment to a process, but you never quite forget there’s a clearly defined end to meet. With a TV piece, at some point a commissioning editor will come in, and they’ll say yes or no. Usually no. It’s the same with the cinema pieces. There’s always a range of intervention from outside that shapes the process quite profoundly. The reason I thought I might want to really migrate back into the artworld was not so much the freedom, but just the sense that it might give me room to be faithful to the process. That it might give me the chance to say, ‘Well, this isn’t about whether it works or not. I just want to follow this thing through to see what it is.’ Either make a fool of myself or do something interesting.

Do you think you have a different expectation of the audience?

JA: Yes, very much. That’s the key difference for me. Crudely put, the psychic space you occupy when you’re doing this breaks down roughly in this form. With the cinema bit, when I sit at an editing table, I almost imagine the screen as it’s built, and in my eye I can see rows of people in front of it watching, and I’m behind them, thinking, ‘OK, well that guy’s shaking his head too much, he obviously isn’t into it.’ So you’re much more attentive to the idea of a mass that you’re part of. In a way, what you’re doing is shepherding people. With a gallery show, I don’t see that guy or that group – it’s weird, it’s not something I’ve trained myself to do – I just sit there and think, ‘OK, I’m really talking to myself now and I’m not doing this on behalf of anyone.’ So I presuppose a certain kind of intimacy with the audience. It also seems that the gallery works anticipate a progression through space on the part of the audience, which you wouldn’t have were they sitting in a cinema.

Eulalia Valldosera, who had the show before me [at Carroll/Fletcher], and whose work is as influenced by cinema as mine is, was in conversation with [cinema theorist] Raymond Bellour, and he was saying to her that the minute you lose that centre of collective experience stationed in space, it’s not cinema, it’s something else. And I think that’s partly true. The experience of evoking a kind of collective memory, which is what the experience of cinema is – a group of people sitting, and they all go, ‘Ah, she’s going to love again, he’s going to be killed again.’ That is absent in a gallery setting, because you know that somebody might spend 15 minutes – or even less – with one piece and then wander off to the next. And you’re just hoping that associatively there’s a kind of ricochet effect set up between the pieces that somehow would allow a visitor to just experience the piece. Whether they like it or not is not really the optimum desired effect. Whereas you can’t do cinema without somebody saying to you, ‘Well, you know, I’m not moved by the end.’ The desire to take hold of the emotional wheel and drive it much more precisely is something that you either keep at the forefront of your mind, or somebody – an exec producer, a producer or some creative – reminds you to do.

For Hauntologies it felt important for people to simply have proximity to a set of emotions. For them to understand that there’s what one could call an ‘affective economy’ being determined in that space. And that economy is mixed: it has a range of highs and lows – usually lows – but it’s an economy all the same. In other words, it’s a system, and it has its own logic and rules, so you don’t need to ‘get it’, you just need to plug in, even momentarily, to fragments of it, and you walk away thinking, ‘OK, that motherfucker’s really sad,’ or ‘He’s missing something.’ It was more the sense that we needed to give weight to the idea of haunting as an aesthetic choice, and to give it legitimacy. I hope people don’t think, ‘Oh, well, he’s just being miserable,’ because I’m not. I’m actually not a miserable person at all, but I do think that finding ways of saying to people that the past lingers in complex ways in the present was important, and using the ontological motif was one that I wanted to do.

Were you thinking in a more ‘sculptural’ way for the gallery works? I mean in terms of treating the screen or monitor as an object or part of a collectionof objects?

JA: Yes – but I was just trying to draw out what was always present in a lot of the moving-image work that I’ve been doing over the past three years. Half the time, you think about the piece and then you think about the setting, but most of the time you can’t really control the setting. When you can, you suddenly realise, ‘Hang on, that’s how I thought about it.’ I did with Mnemosyne at the Southbank. The minute I started to think about the piece [a 2010 film installation questioning memory and migration, and combining archive imagery with new footage of the Alaskan landscape], it was important that some sort of ship motif be in place, because the whole question of the journey had to be somehow made metonymic. It had to be realised physically.

In the show at Carroll/Fletcher you had a room filled with stones, and a projector hidden in a monolith. As one entered the room it had the effect of both a barrier and an invitation. Some people didn’t seem to know what to make of it.

JA: Well, this was unanticipated. Because in a cinema session, you would have to explain, even to yourself, why everything’s set up the way it is, whereas in a gallery, what you’re anticipating in advance is just someone experiencing it. What I can anticipate is that we’ll set this thing up, and at some point, someone will come down those stairs and not quite know where they are supposed to go. That’s the unknown, and what they make of it, equally unknown, but what they will be aware of when they came down those concrete stairs is that someone has laid out something for them which is either forbidding or inviting, and either is an option, aversion or interest.

It did seem that the show ran through a whole different array of ways of experiencing moving image, sitting down in front of a screen, standing up in front of or shuffling around a monitor, and grabbing a set of headphones and becoming distant from the viewing space. It seemed to enhance the sensation of the viewer and the work as two distinct things, whereas in the cinema we’re encouraged to lose ourselves in the work.

JA: If you migrate a practice from one world in which it has a certain relationship to the room, I think the first thing that you ought to try and do is renegotiate your relationship to the room in the new light. I’m very keen for people not to somehow think that this is about taking a set of dodgy practices from one world and sticking it in another. That’s not really what this is about for me, because I think it’s important that people – and by people, I mean other people working in this way – also understand that our relationship to the worlds we left, like all migrations, changed profoundly where the urge to migrate comes from in the first place. Without that psychic – or political in some cases – shift or a cultural shift between you and that world in which you existed, the need to migrate wouldn’t be there. If I was entirely happy working in cinema or entirely happy doing arts television, I would never have wanted to ‘return’. It’s because I wasn’t that the move felt necessary. One of the things I think you should do when you make that move is then sit down and figure out, almost in biblical form, how you arrived at the room adjoining. How you tell that story of your journey, and that inevitably involves a new configuring of your relationship to the real and the image, so I wanted that to be the basis of the practice. I wanted that to be really forefront, so people could see, ‘OK, he isn’t just making cinema in a gallery.’ I’m not. I know other artists are, but that’s not my thing, because I could stay in cinema and make cinema. I don’t need to move.

Do you think the experience of doing gallery shows kind of has some effect, or impact on how you approach cinema? Do you pick up more?

JA: Absolutely. I’m devising two ideas at the moment – long-form ideas that can only survive in the cinema. They’re too long to be anything other than cinematic exercises, and with both of them I can already feel a certain kind of cavalier spirit creeping in. You can just feel the reins coming off. Freedom’s a key word here. It’s really important – and I know it’s a much maligned and much abused word, but it is still important. The sense that somehow imaginations are unleashed, both on your part and on the part of your audience or viewer or gallery visitor, is crucial to me. I’m hoping that the two might start to cross-fertilise slightly more productively further on down the line. At the moment I’m just happy to say, ‘OK, well, just the same energy.’ I’m just happy to say, ‘Today is cinema day. Tomorrow? I don’t know.’ And not in a po-faced or dilettante-ish way. What I’m not going to do any more is commit to one as if it were some sort of cult. It’s not a flat earth. When you walk to the end in cinema world, you don’t fall off and disappear, you just end up in the Australia of the artworld, and I just want to work more with that sense – that I’m on this walkabout and the songlines occasionally will take you into this territory, but you’re taking it all very seriously. You’re taking the walk seriously because you know that if you stray too far, you will get eaten, whether by imaginary beasts or real ones. I know the dangers, I know that for others this would be, as they say in the film world, ‘a wank’, but I think it’s a risk worth taking.

You know, it seems for me that something happened after the war, and I’ve been doing enough archive-based work now to understand it. Going through either BBC archive or the BFI, and you can see a range of filmmakers, poets really, from Humphrey Jennings to Richard Marquand and a whole range of people who in any other world would’ve been painters or writers, who chose to go into somewhere in television, and you can feel this sense of them saying, ‘OK, we’re now in a new world, and we are required to make this new world make sense, to ourselves and to the world.’ And through them a shitload of stuff got done, all the way down to Cathy Come Home [1966]. But that moment’s gone. The institutions that became custodians of the real don’t have much patience for it. Television certainly doesn’t, and cinema doesn’t. So those of us who still believe in the quest, those of us who still believe in the image, have to find ways of making it live, and it’s not a question of betrayal, of television, or an adoption; it’s really about being relative to the image. Where and in what way can it survive? Can it coexist with a whole range of other practices, from soap operas to reality TV and music videos? And where does it survive? Where does it say, ‘I’m not just here to sell you something, I’m not just here to make your life good or bad, I have an ontology of my own.’ Where does that go? When you can’t get it onto the BBC at 9pm, what the fuck do you do with it?

Do you have that sense now that there’s another new world?

JA: Yes, very much, and you know, I don’t want this to sound like I’m some sort of veteran in the image wars or anything, because I’m not. But the sense that I’ve now got is that my discomfort or my unease with the two spaces that have been in my life for 25 years is not just coincidence, and they’re not just to do with my quirks. I think something profound and fundamental and seismic is taking place that is to do with a renegotiating of the relationship between us and the real. I think the agnosticism that characterises what Rossellini did – a sense that somehow out there there’s something messy, untamed that you need to coexist with – that’s gone. Linking to our CGI world, people don’t want to have this complicated relationship with the real. Fuck it, just make it, you know? So anyone who’s a disciple of the real – I don’t mean with a small ‘r’ or a capital ‘R’, just something unknown and ultimately unknowable that we spend our life grappling with – someone who has that relationship or thinks that the relationship between self and other shit exists, has to find other ways of making that shit work.

When I was sixteen, I could walk into a cinema off the Fulham Road and see a range of stuff from El Cid to Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop to Pasolini’s Salò. Now that range isn’t there, not just because the culture got cheaper or coarser or vulgar. It’s just not there because people don’t think it’s necessary. So it’s changed our practice, and will continue to transform the moving-image practice quite profoundly.

This article first appeared in the December 2012 issue.