My favorite movie-going happens at the art museum—most recently, with Kevin Beasley (“A view of a landscape,” Whitney, 2019), Nick Cave (“Nick Cave: Forothermore,” Guggenheim, 2022), and Theaster Gates (“Young Lords and Their Traces,” New Museum, 2022).
A cotton gin motor in a soundproof case, whose synthetized sounds are channeled to a different room; a church organ and speakers beckoning one another in anticipation of a devotional soundscape; elaborate garments intended to function as embodied sound systems that cloak and tie several human figures together, demanding: Speak Louder— at first sight, they might not say much about the current state of film theory, yet, for me, they do. Theirs is not only a “cinema by other means,” as Pavle Levi might call it, but also a cinema for other ends. They are part of inter-generational conversations among contemporary black filmmakers, visual and sound artists who carry out what Toni Morrison described as the “liquidity” of the black arts, i.e., practicing one artform in terms of another. Beasley makes sound art through sculpture; Gates approaches built environments as pottery; Cave sculpts musical instruments by way of haute couture.
Arguably, liquidity is almost de rigueur among multi-media and post-disciplinary artists from the post-black generation. Yet, the question here is not one of derivation or translation, but rather of “anaoriginarity,” where the prefix “ana” does the work of undoing that which is supposed to stand up, stand firm, stand first—a refusal of what has already been refused (Fred Moten).
Modulations of this aesthetic language have now permeated all facets of visual culture (consider Virgil Abloh’s “Figures of Speech”), channeled, in part, by contemporary black filmmaking’s nimble movements between art galleries and commercial spaces, visual albums and essay films, site-specific installations and digital platforms. Some names: Arthur Jafa, Malik Hassan Sayeed, Kahlil Joseph, Bradford Young, Elissa Blount Moorhead, Jenn Nkiru, and Terence Nance. Together, they strive to perform “anarchitectural” interventions in the very institutions and language of cinema. Anarchitecture, in turn, is the (very appropriately) “anaoriginal” name for Gordon Matta-Clark’s practice, since it remains unclear whether it was expressed by a collective art show, a reluctant soloist, or press coverage of his “cutting” of unexpected spaces from architectural structures.
Alongside Moten, I am convinced by the anaoriginarity of the black aesthetic endeavor taking place “before the distinction between subject and object” and by the idea that the cinematic is a technology of sovereignty that calls for a similar undoing: an “anacinematic” practice finally un-hinged from the subject’s oscillation between the exaltation and shame institutionalized by cinema’s tension between movement and stasis, synchronized and alienated sound.
I look at installation art to be reminded of the sociality of these efforts, and that formal readings are no longer sufficient to describe this work. What is needed, instead, is reading for informality: form as a non-extractive jurisgenerative and relational praxis— the same anaoriginal informality that grounds the liquidity of the black arts.
An example: Kahlil Joseph’s Black Mary, 2017—part of what I regard as an informal trilogy that includes the single-channel installations Alice (you don’t have to think about it), 2016, and Fly Paper, 2017. Consider it through his years-long engagement with Roy DeCarava’s approach to photography as both a time-based and sound-based medium: DeCarava’s resolve to wait till the photograph can yield a moment of equilibrium within its own dramatic arc—like a pole-vaulter reaching the peak of their jump—and his effort to make photography “take the shape of improvisatory music.” “In jazz,” DeCarava said, “there is never a wrong note because each note can be redeemed by the next one.”
Turning DeCarava’s insights into (in)formal principles of montage, Black Mary inhabits the “centrifugitivity” and informality of this praxis. It seemingly begins with a delayed synchronization, and yet Alice Smith’s voice remains anaoriginal (its source unattributable) across several cuts between footage of a live session and a recording session—sometimes held at the limit of stillness—and several unexpected visual and sonic cutaways: Harlem community members often framed looking at an emergency vehicle whose lights are reflected behind them; a “Beauty Supplies” sign flickering like a glissando on a piano; a barking dog, a sudden banging at the door, broken sentences and unanswered questions around what appears to be a sudden tragedy. By making it impossible to suture Smith’s voice within and across these edits, Black Mary rejects synchronization’s attachment to the expected coherence of the subject, while its centrifugitive gestures distribute the sites of aesthetic production across a multiplicity of locations and soundtracks. Its embracing of radical informality demands us to ask: where does the music come from? That is, to ask about “music,” rather than “voice,” in order to commit to the anaoriginarity of the film’s sound-making practices and acknowledge the sociality Black Mary simultaneously engenders and is engendered by.
Black Mary’s last scene places the camera on the grass looking up toward a Harlem church as a couple strolling to a funeral, a function, or nowhere in particular, cross paths with a nurse in her scrubs. It’s a view from the music, not the voice; the solo, not the soloist; poetry, not the poet. Thus, I go to the art gallery in search of an informal film theory to come, one that will similarly adopt a view from the music, not the voice, and attend to these visionary practices’ ongoing investment in rejecting the very individuation that, sometimes, enables their exhibition in art institutions’ hallowed grounds.